Earth is not the only planet in our solar system with auroras. As the solar wind—a stream of rarefied plasma from our sun—blows through the solar system, it interacts with the magnetic fields of other planets as well as our own. Saturn’s magnetic field second only to Jupiter’s in strength. This strong magnetosphere deflects many of the solar wind’s energetic particles, but, as on Earth, some of the particles get drawn in along Saturn’s magnetic field lines. These lines converge at the poles, where the high-energy particles interact with the gases in the upper reaches of Saturn’s atmosphere. As a result, Saturn, like Earth, has impressive and colorful light displays around its poles. (Image credit: ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser & L. Calçada, source video; via spaceplasma)
The forces on an object in flight come from the distribution of pressure on the surface. To alter an object’s trajectory, one has to shift the pressure distribution. On subsonic and transonic aircraft, this is usually done with control surfaces like an aileron, but at supersonic speeds this can require a lot of force. The schlieren images above show an alternative approach in which a plasma actuator near the nosetip generates asymmetric forces on the cone. The actuator discharges plasma at t=0, and flow is from left to right. In the first image, the bubble of plasma is expanding on the upper side of the cone, disrupting the nearby shock wave. Over time, it moves downstream, carrying its disruption with it. The asymmetric effect of the plasma causes uneven pressures on either side of the cone that can be triggered in order to turn it in flight. (Photo credit: P. Gnemmi and C. Rey)
An aurora, as seen from the International Space Station, glows in green and red waves over the polar regions of Earth. These lights are the result of interactions between the solar wind—a stream of hot, rarefied plasma from the sun—and our planet’s magnetic field. A bow shock forms where they meet, about 12,000-15,000 km from Earth. The planet’s magnetic field deflects much of the solar wind, but some plasma gets drawn in along field lines near the poles. When these energetic particles interact with nitrogen and oxygen atoms in the upper atmosphere, it can excite the atoms and generate photon emissions, creating the distinctive glow. Similar auroras have been observed on several other planets and moons in our solar system. (Photo credit: NASA)
Fluid dynamics appear at all kinds of scales. The animation above shows two comets, Encke and ISON, on their recent approach toward the sun. The darker wisps emanating from the right side of the image are part of the solar wind, a plasma stream continuously emitted by the sun's upper atmosphere. Although the solar wind is very rarefied by terrestrial standards, its density is sufficient to whip the comets’ tails of gas and dust from side-to-side. Scientists use images like these to learn more about the structure of the solar wind based on its interaction with the comets. For more great images of ISON’s journey around the sun, check out NASA Goddard. (Image credit: K. Battams/NASA/STEREO/CIOC; submitted by John C)
Finally, our lead image was created with the appFrax, which allows users to make their own fractal-based art. Fluid dynamics has a lot of fractal behaviors. iOS users who want toplay with fractalsshould check it out.
New photographs showing ultra-fine structure in the sun's chromosphere and photosphere have been released. They offer a fascinating view into the magnetohydrodynamics of the sun, where the fluid behaviors of plasma are constantly modified by the sun’s magnetic field. The left image shows fine-scale magnetic loops rooted in the photosphere, while the right image shows our clearest photo yet of a sunspot. The dark central portion is the umbra, where magnetic field lines are almost vertical; it’s surrounded by the penumbra, where field lines are more inclined. Further out, we see the regular convective cell structure of the sun. (Photo credit: Big Bear Solar Observatory/NJIT; via io9 and cnet)
Jets of high-energy plasma and sub-atomic particles explode outward from the Hercules A elliptical galaxy at the center of this photo. The jets are driven to speeds close to that of light due to the gravitation of the supermassive black hole at the center of the elliptical galaxy. Relativistic effects mask the innermost portions of the jets from our view, but, as the jets slow, they become unstable, billowing out into rings and wisps whose turbulent shapes suggest multiple outbursts originating from Hercules A. (Photo credit:NASA, ESA, S. Baum and C. O’Dea (RIT), R. Perley and W. Cotton (NRAO/AUI/NSF), and the Hubble HeritageTeam (STScI/AURA); via Discovery)
Two dark areas of plasma, cooler than the surrounding fluid, dance and intertwine above the sun’s surface. Plasma, a rarefied gas made up of ions, is an electrically conductive fluid, shaped here by the magnetic field of the sun. Note how the strands pass material back and forth along the magnetic field lines. This timelapse video, captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, takes place over the course of a day and is captured in the extreme ultraviolet range.
NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this video of swirls of darker, cooler plasma caught between competing magnetic forces over the course of 30 hours. The plasma strands rotate like tornadoes caught on magnetic field lines. It sometimes feels incredible to observe such familiar-looking fluid behavior in such unfamiliar places, but it’s just a reminder that physics works no matter where you are.