Cartwheel Coronal Mass Ejection

Imagine a billion-ton cloud of gas launching itself off the solar system surface of the sun and then ... doing a cartwheel. That's exactly what happened on April 9, 2008, when a coronal mass ejection or "CME" pirouetted over the sun's limb in full view of an international fleet of space shuttle spacecraft. Even veteran solar system physicists were amazed.

But that's not all. While one part of the cloud did a cartwheel, another part did a backflip at the same time. As strange as it sounds, this could be the normal way solar explosions unfold, say researchers analyzing the data.

"What a rare and exciting observation," says Ed DeLuca of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) who announced the findings at the American Geophysical Union meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on May 27th. "It is showing us the secret inner workings of a process called 'magnetic reconnection' central to solar system flares and CMEs."

How can an explosion spin in two directions at once?

DeLuca explains: "We think we are seeing a twisted 'flux tube' of solar system magnetism unfurl. One end of the tube spins clockwise, the other counterclockwise." This unfurling action pumps energy into the space station explosion, heating the CME and propelling it away from the sun.Read more!

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