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solar wind

solar wind, stream of ionized hydrogen—protons and electrons—with an 8% component of helium ions and trace amounts of heavier ions that radiates outward from the sun at high speeds. The continuous expansion of the solar corona into the surrounding vacuum of space carries away from the sun about 1 million tons of gas per sec; this blows out like a wind through the solar system. During the days of quiet sunspot activity the wind at the sun has an approximate density of 1 billion atoms per cc and a temperature of about 1 million degrees Fahrenheit. During relatively quiet periods, the wind moves outward from the sun at velocities of 220 to 440 mi (350 to 700 km) per sec (averaging about 1 million mph/1.6 million kph). Near the earth it has a density ranging from 3 to 6 atoms per cc, a velocity of 450 mi (700 km) per sec, and a temperature of about 1,300°F (700°C); during periods of greater sunspot activity it shows corresponding increases in density, temperature, and velocity—reaching speeds of 2 million mph (3.2 million kph). The increased velocity is attributed to acceleration caused by magnetic waves spiraling from the sun. The wind is believed to extend out to between 100 and 200 AU (1 AU is the mean distance between the earth and the sun), far beyond Pluto (at 39 AU), where it is dispersed in the interstellar gases. Information from the Voyager space probes about the region known as the heliosheath, where the solar wind is slowed to subsonic speeds and no longer pushes outward, indicates that it is turbulent, marked by a magnetic bubble froth produced by the interaction of the solar wind and the interstellar medium.

Many effects result from the solar wind. The characteristic that a comet tail always points away from the sun is explained by the pressure of the wind pushing it out. The intensity of the cosmic rays in the inner part of the solar system is reduced by the magnetic fields carried on the wind, which tend to deflect the rays, thus providing a shield against that radiation. The interaction of the wind with the earth's magnetic field is responsible in part for such phenomena as auroras and geomagnetic storms.

See J. R. Jokipii and C. P. Sonett, ed., Cosmic Winds and the Heliosphere (1997).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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