February 4, 1999
GREENBELT, Maryland (CNN) -- Using instruments aboard the SOHO spacecraft, scientists say they have pinpointed the source of the "solar wind" on the sun.
The solar wind is a gush of electrified gas that flows from the sun out across the solar system. As it washes across the Earth, the solar wind can interact with our planet's electromagnetic field. Variations in its flow can disrupt power transmissions and satellite communications.
Researchers say they have now been able to visualize the source of the solar wind -- it's coming from honeycomb-shaped magnetic fields called coronal holes on the surface of the sun.
The research was conducted by Don Hassler of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, along with a team of international scientists.
"The search for the source of the solar wind has been like the hunt for source of the Nile," Hassler said in a statement.
SOHO stands for Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. It is a $1 billion NASA and the European Space Agency joint project.
SOHO was launched in 1995 to study the sun from an area out in space known as the L-1 position, which is 1 million miles out from Earth, between the Earth and sun.
SOHO has been plagued with a number of communications problems and mechanical malfunctions over the past year.
In June, mission controllers lost contact with the spacecraft when it spun out of control after receiving faulty software commands radioed to it from Earth.
Communications were re-established with SOHO in September, but failure of gyroscopes aboard continued to threaten the mission. To keep itself in the proper orientation to the sun, the spacecraft has to fire its thrusters often and was using up its limited fuel supply.
This week, that problem was solved when mission controllers announced a new software fix has enabled the spacecraft to stabilize itself and point its instruments toward the sun.
The research is published in this week's edition of the journal Science.
NASA missions to study Earth's clouds, volcanic plumes
NASA European Space Agency
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