This past week, a part of the sun’s surface broke off and started circling the sun’s north pole almost as if it were a giant polar vortex––and scientists don’t know why. Space weather forecaster Tamitha Skov posted a video of the phenomena to Twitter, sharing her excitement. “Talk about Polar Vortex! Material from a northern prominence just broke away from the main filament & is now circulating in a massive polar vortex around the north pole of our Star,” she wrote. “Implications for understanding the Sun's atmospheric dynamics above 55° here cannot be overstated!”
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The find is just the latest in a series of interesting space observations thanks to the capabilities of the James Webb Space Telescope. According to NASA, solar prominence is a large bright feature that extends outward from the Sun's surface. Prominences consist of hydrogen and helium, and usually erupt when a structure becomes unstable and bursts outward, releasing the plasma. Scott McIntosh, a solar physicist and deputy director at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, told Space.com that he has never seen a vortex like this but notes that something odd usually happens at the sun's 55 degree latitudes once every solar cycle. Solar cycles are periodic 11-year changes in the Sun’s activity. Over this period, things like solar radiation, ejection of solar material, sunspots, and solar flares fluctuate. McIntosh described the northern prominence as a “hedgerow in the solar plasma", which does appear exactly at the same spot around the sun’s polar crown every 11 years. But even though scientists have observed such hedgerows in solar plasma, it’s never resulted in a polar whirlwind like the one recently observed. Scientists think the phenomena has to do with the reversal of the sun’s magnetic field—and believe that the polar region is very important in generating the magnetic field—but they don’t know what the exact cause is. "Once every solar cycle, it forms at the 55 degree latitude and it starts to march up to the solar poles," McIntosh told Space.com. "It's very curious. There is a big 'why' question around it. Why does it only move toward the pole one time and then disappears and then comes back, magically, three or four years later in exactly the same region?"McIntosh also said that it’s a region that cannot be directly observed, as scientists can only observe the sun from the ecliptic plane, or what the planets orbit. While the ongoing Solar Orbiter mission from the European Space Agency could provide some insight, as it takes images of the sun from within the orbit of Mercury, McIntosh believes we could need another mission to fully understand what’s happening at the Sun.