See How Massive Solar Eruptions Send Powerful Shock Waves Through Space

New 3D models from NASA show how massive solar eruptions send powerful shock waves through space.

Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) on the sun, which happen when the sun's magnetic-field lines bend and break, release significant amounts of plasma and charged particles that can spark geomagnetic storms that damage satellites in space and disrupt power grids on Earth.

Using data from three NASA satellites, the new models reveal how shock waves develop following massive solar eruptions and accelerate through space. A better understanding of this process is key to improving space weather predictions, according to a statement from NASA. [The Sun's Wrath: The Worst Solar Storms Ever]

"Much the way ships form bow waves as they move through water, CMEs set off interplanetary shocks when they erupt from the sun at extreme speeds, propelling a wave of high-energy particles," NASA officials said in the statement. "These particles can spark space weather events around Earth, endangering spacecraft and astronauts."

Three unique satellite views of a coronal mass ejection (CME) were combined to create new 3D models of the structure and trajectory of a CME and shock. (Image credit: Joy Ng/NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/GMU/APL)

The researchers combined data from three NASA satellites: the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory and the twin Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory satellites. The observations that the researchers used to create the new models were of two different CMEs: one in March 2011, and one in February 2014.

Each of the three satellites offered a unique view that, when combined, provided researchers a much more robust map of the solar eruption than any one satellite could have done alone, according to the statement.

Using the combined observations, the researchers developed two models for the 3D structure and trajectory of each CME and shock. The "croissant" model details the shape of nascent shocks, while the "ellipsoid" model shows the shape of expanding shocks. [Stunning Photos of Solar Flares & Sun Storms]

The new 3D view "confirmed long-held theoretical predictions of a strong shock near the CME nose and a weaker shock at the sides," officials said in the statement.

Their findings, published Feb. 13 in the Journal of Space Weather and Space Climate, also revealed the density of the plasma around the shock, as well as the speed and strength of the energized particles unleashed by the sun.

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Samantha Mathewson
Contributing Writer

Samantha Mathewson joined as an intern in the summer of 2016. She received a B.A. in Journalism and Environmental Science at the University of New Haven, in Connecticut. Previously, her work has been published in Nature World News. When not writing or reading about science, Samantha enjoys traveling to new places and taking photos! You can follow her on Twitter @Sam_Ashley13.