Magnetic Waves Crashing Through the Sun Create Heat and May Drive Solar Wind

Our sun powers almost every single living thing on the planet. Yet for all its familiarity, the star overseeing our neck of the celestial woods still hides plenty of mysteries—but scientists have now managed to crack one secret.

That's because they've finally spotted evidence for a phenomenon they have spent more than 50 years looking for, a specific type of magnetic wave roiling the sun's surface. Researchers share those observations in a new paper published in the journal Nature Physics

"This theory was predicted some 75 years ago but we now have the proof for the very first time," co-author David Jess, a solar physicist at Queen's University Belfast in the U.K., said in a press release.

03_06_sun The sun produces a steady stream of x-rays, made visible in this image. NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC

Jess and his colleagues were able to gather incredibly detailed observations in 2014 of a sunspot, a seemingly dark patch on the surface of the sun. These freckles are actually (relatively) cold spots formed when the sun's magnetic field gets knotted up in one place.

The scientists wanted to look for signs of Alfvén waves, named for Swedish electrical engineer Hannes Alfvén, who won the 1970 Nobel Prize in Physics or his work on the movement of charged particles—called plasma—that make up the sun. He figured out that the magnetism governing plasma should be able to transmit a wave.

Read more: Could Proxima B Host Alien Life? A Giant Flare May Have Wiped It Out Last Year

And those waves have been spotted before in other types of magnetically warped plasma—here on Earth within hospital MRI machines and even in space. But until now, scientists couldn't confirm Alfvén waves were also happening on the sun. That's where the new work comes into play, tracing waves as they heat up the plasma at the sun's surface and gathering the first observational evidence of the phenomenon.

A better understanding of Alfvén waves could solve a second mystery, since scientists have suggested they may also drive the solar wind—a constant stream of plasma flowing out of the sun and into space. Earth's magnetic field protects us from the brunt of the solar wind, but places like Mars and the Moon aren't so lucky, so having a grasp of the phenomenon could help future explorers thrive.