The solar wind is a stream of charged particles—a plasma—that are ejected from the upper atmosphere of the sun. It consists mostly of electrons and protons with energies of about 1 keV. These particles are able to escape the sun's gravity, in part because of the high temperature of the corona, but also because of high kinetic energy that particles gain through a process that is not well-understood at this time.
The solar wind creates the Heliosphere, a vast bubble in the interstellar medium surrounding the solar system. Other phenomena include geomagnetic storms that can knock out power grids on Earth, the aurorae such as the Northern Lights, and the plasma tails of comets that always point away from the sun.
The concept of streams of particles flowing outward from the Sun was first suggested by British amateur astronomer Richard C. Carrington. In 1859, Carrington and Richard Hodgson independently made the first observation of what would later be called a solar flare. This is a sudden outburst of energy from the Sun's atmosphere. On the following day, a geomagnetic storm was observed, and Carrington suspected that there may be a connection. George Fitzgerald later suggested that matter was being regularly accelerated away from the Sun and was reaching the Earth after several days.
The ideas of Fitzgerald and others was further developed by the Norwegian physicist Kristian Birkeland. His geomagnetic surveys showed that auroral activity was nearly permanent. As these displays and other geomagnetic activity were being produced by particles from the Sun, he concluded that the Earth was being continually bombarded by "rays of electric corpuscles emitted by the Sun". In 1916, Birkeland was probably the first person to successfully predict that, "From a physical point of view it is most probable that solar rays are neither exclusively negative nor positive rays, but of both kinds". In other words, the solar wind consists of both negative electrons and positive ions. Three years later in 1919, Frederick Lindemann also suggested that particles of both polarities, protons as well as electrons, come from the Sun.
Around the 1930s, scientists had determined that the temperature of the solar corona must be a million degrees Celsius because of the way it stood out into space (as seen during total eclipses). Later spectroscopic work confirmed this extraordinary temperature. In the mid-1950s the British mathematician Sydney Chapman calculated the properties of a gas at such a temperature and determined it was such a superb conductor of heat that it must extend way out into space, beyond the orbit of Earth. Also in the 1950s, a German scientist named Ludwig Biermann became interested in the fact that no matter whether a comet is headed towards or away from the sun, its tail always points away from the Sun. Biermann postulated that this happens because the Sun emits a steady stream of particles that pushes the comet's tail away.
Wilfried Schröder claims in his book, Who First Discovered the Solar Wind?, that the German astronomer Paul Ahnert was the first to relate solar wind to comet tail direction based on observations of the comet Whipple-Fedke (1942g).
Eugene Parker realised that the heat flowing from the sun in Chapman's model and the comet tail blowing away from the sun in Biermann's hypothesis had to be the result of the same phenomenon, which he termed the "solar wind". Parker showed that even though the sun's corona is strongly attracted by solar gravity, it is such a good conductor of heat that it is still very hot at large distances. Since gravity weakens as distance from the sun increases, the outer coronal atmosphere escapes supersonically into interstellar space. Furthermore, Parker was the first person to notice that the weakening effect of the gravity has the same effect on hydrodynamic flow as a de Laval nozzle: it incites a transition from subsonic to supersonic flow.
Opposition to Parker's hypothesis on the solar wind was strong. The paper he submitted to the Astrophysical Journal in 1958 was rejected by two reviewers. It was saved by the editor Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (who later received the 1983 Nobel Prize in physics).
In January 1959, the first ever direct observations and measurements of strength of the solar wind were made by the Soviet satellite Luna 1. They were performed using scintillation counters and gaseous ionization detectors. The discovery, made by Konstantin Gringauz was verified by Luna 2, Luna 3 and by the more distant measurements of Venera 1. Three years later its measurement was performed by Americans (Neugebauer and collaborators) using the Mariner 2 spacecraft.
However, the acceleration of the fast wind is still not understood and cannot be fully explained by Parker's theory. The first numerical simulation of the solar wind in the solar corona including closed and open field lines was performed by Pneuman and Knopp in 1971. The magnetohydrodynamics equations in steady state were solved iteratively starting with an initial dipolar configuration.
In the late 1990s the Ultraviolet Coronal Spectrometer (UVCS) instrument on board the SOHO spacecraft observed the acceleration region of the fast solar wind emanating from the poles of the sun, and found that the wind accelerates much faster than can be accounted for by thermodynamic expansion alone. Parker's model predicted that the wind should make the transition to supersonic flow at an altitude of about 4 solar radii from the photosphere; but the transition (or "sonic point") now appears to be much lower, perhaps only 1 solar radius above the photosphere, suggesting that some additional mechanism accelerates the solar wind away from the sun.
The Sun's corona, or extended outer layer, is a region of plasma that is heated to over a million Celsius. As a result of thermal collisions, the particles within the inner corona have a range and distribution of speeds described by a Maxwellian distribution. The mean velocity of these particles is about 145 km/s, which is well below the solar escape velocity of 618 km/s. However, a few of the particles will achieve energies sufficient to reach the terminal velocity of 400 km/s, allowing them to feed the solar wind. At the same temperature, electrons, due to their much smaller mass, obtain escape velocity and build up an electric field which tends to further accelerate ions - charged atoms - away from the Sun.
The total number of particles carried away from the Sun by the solar wind is about 1.3 per second. Thus, the total mass loss each year is about (2–3) solar masses, or 6.7 billion tons per hour. This is equivalent to losing a mass equal to the Earth every 150 million years. However, only about 0.01% of the Sun's total mass has been lost through the solar wind. Other stars have much stronger stellar winds that result in significantly higher mass loss rates.
The slow solar wind appears to originate from a region around the Sun's equatorial belt that is known as the "streamer belt". Coronal streamers extend outward from this region, carrying plasma from the interior along closed magnetic loops. Observations of the Sun between 1996 and 2001 showed that emission of the slow solar wind occurred between latitudes of 30–35° around the equator during the solar minimum (the period of lowest solar activity), then expanded toward the poles as the minimum waned. By the time of the solar maximum, the poles were also emitting a slow solar wind.
The fast solar wind is thought to originate from coronal holes, which are funnel-like regions of open field lines in the Sun's magnetic field. Such open lines are particularly prevalent around the Sun's magnetic poles. The plasma source is small magnetic fields created by convection cells in the solar atmosphere. These fields confine the plasma and transport it into the narrow necks of the coronal funnels, which are located only 20,000 kilometers above the photosphere. The plasma is released into the funnel when these magnetic field lines reconnect.
Both the fast and slow solar wind can be interrupted by large, fast-moving bursts of plasma called interplanetary coronal mass ejections, or ICMEs. ICMEs are the interplanetary manifestation of solar coronal mass ejections, which are caused by release of magnetic energy at the sun. ICMEs are often called "solar storms" or "space storms" in the popular media. They are sometimes, but not always, associated with solar flares, which are another manifestation of magnetic energy release at the Sun. ICMEs cause shock waves in the thin plasma of the heliosphere, launching electromagnetic waves and accelerating particles (mostly protons and electrons) to form showers of ionizing radiation that precede the ICME.
When an ICME impacts the Earth's magnetosphere, it temporarily deforms the Earth's magnetic field, changing the direction of compass needles and inducing large electrical ground currents in Earth itself; this is called a geomagnetic storm and it is a global phenomenon. ICME impacts can induce magnetic reconnection in Earth's magnetotail (the midnight side of the magnetosphere); this launches protons and electrons downward toward Earth's atmosphere, where they form the aurora.
ICMEs are not the only cause of space weather. Different patches on the Sun are known to give rise to slightly different speeds and densities of wind depending on local conditions. In isolation, each of these different wind streams would form a spiral with a slightly different angle, with fast-moving streams moving out more directly and slow-moving streams wrapping more around the sun. Faster-moving streams tend to overtake slower streams that originate westward of them on the sun, forming turbulent co-rotating interaction regions that give rise to wave motions and accelerated particles, and that affect Earth's magnetosphere in the same way as, but more gently than, ICMEs.
Over the lifetime of the Sun, the surface rotation rate has decreased significantly. This loss of rotation is thought to have been caused by interaction of the Sun's surface layers with the escaping solar wind.
As the solar wind approaches a planet that has a well-developed magnetic field (such as Earth, Jupiter and Saturn), the particles are deflected by the Lorentz force. This region, known as the magnetosphere, causes the particles to travel around the planet rather than bombarding the atmosphere or surface. The magnetosphere is roughly shaped like a hemisphere on the side facing the Sun, then is drawn out in a long wake on the opposite side. The boundary of this region is called the magnetopause, and some of the particles are able to penetrate the magnetosphere through this region by partial reconnection of the magnetic field lines.
Earth itself is largely protected from the solar wind by its magnetic field, which deflects most of the charged particles, however some of the charged particles are trapped in the Van Allen radiation belt. A smaller number of particles from the solar wind manage to travel, as though on an electromagnetic energy transmission line, to the Earth's upper atmosphere and ionosphere in the auroral zones. The only time the solar wind is observable on the Earth is when it is strong enough to produce phenomena such as the aurora and geomagnetic storms. Bright auroras strongly heat the ionosphere, causing its plasma to expand into the magnetosphere, increasing the size of the plasma geosphere, and causing escape of atmospheric matter into the solar wind. Geomagnetic storms result when the pressure of plasmas contained inside the magnetosphere is sufficiently large to inflate and thereby distort the geomagnetic field.
The solar wind is responsible for the overall shape of Earth's magnetosphere, and fluctuations in its speed, density, direction, and entrained magnetic field strongly affect Earth's local space environment. For example, the levels of ionizing radiation and radio interference can vary by factors of hundreds to thousands; and the shape and location of the magnetopause and bow shock wave upstream of it can change by several Earth radii, exposing geosynchronous satellites to the direct solar wind. These phenomena are collectively called space weather.
Planets with a weak or non-existent magnetosphere are subject to atmospheric stripping by the solar wind.
Venus, the nearest planet to Earth, has an atmosphere 100 times more dense than our own. Modern space probes have discovered a comet-like tail that stretches back to the orbit of the Earth.
Mars is larger than Mercury and four times farther from the sun, and yet even here it is thought that the solar wind has stripped away up to a third of its original atmosphere, leaving a layer 100 times less dense than the Earth's.
The Earth's Moon has no atmosphere or intrinsic magnetic field, and consequently its surface is bombarded with the full solar wind. The Project Apollo missions deployed passive aluminum collectors in an attempt to sample the solar wind, and lunar soil returned for study confirmed that the lunar regolith is enriched in atomic nuclei deposited from the solar wind. There has been speculation that these elements may prove to be useful resources for future lunar colonies.
The solar wind "blows a bubble" in the interstellar medium (the rarefied hydrogen and helium gas that permeates the galaxy). The point where the solar wind's strength is no longer great enough to push back the interstellar medium is known as the heliopause, and is often considered to be the outer "border" of the solar system. The distance to the heliopause is not precisely known, and probably varies widely depending on the current velocity of the solar wind and the local density of the interstellar medium, but it is known to lie far outside the orbit of Pluto. Scientists hope to gain more perspective on the heliopause from data acquired through the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) mission, to be launched in 2008.