Between 02:01 and 02:29 the new NASA Goddard video 5 New Discoveries from NASA's Parker Solar Probe explains

finding # 4, A Breaking Point:

Before parker, scientists knew that the corona rotates with the visible surface below it. But they didn’t know how — or where — the solar wind switched to flowing straight by the time it reaches Earth.

Parker has finally spotted signs of this transition — and the changeover happens significantly farther out than expected.

Naively I'd apply conservation of angular momentum and assume that the particles are in individual ballistic orbits, but the solar wind contains charged particles as well as neutrals and so even though of low density and long mean free paths they can interact collectively.

But I don't understand why the solar wind would suddenly stop rotating beyond some radius from the Sun well inside Earth's orbit, rather than beyond the heliopause.

Why does this happen?

  • $\begingroup$ What do you mean by flowing straight? Radially outwards as opposed to having an azimuthal velocity component? 'Straight' in outer space is not very well defined. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 2:12
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    $\begingroup$ I'm happy that your understanding and NASA's align so well. Many of those coincidences these days, seemingly. Anyways, so you mean radially away from the sun, thanks, that's vocabulary that your fellow scientist can understand. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 2:32
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    $\begingroup$ And what about the fact that the Sun, Earth and Parker are all in the ecliptic at the same time? Too many coincidences for comfort! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 2:37
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    $\begingroup$ Just a quick note: The solar wind leaves the Sun with some radial and azimuthal velocity components. Near to the Sun, the flow roughly co-rotates with the magnetic "foot point" of any given solar wind parcel. Beyond some radial distance, called the Alfven point, the co-rotation breaks down but the azimuthal component of the solar wind doesn't disappear at this point. It's just no longer following, in longitude, the surface of the Sun. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 15:03
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, I just figured I would clarify something though I think Rob's answer is more than sufficient (and correct, as per usual). $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 15:07

1 Answer 1


When plasma moves in a magnetic field then the charged particles follow helical paths around the field lines, due to the $q\vec{v}\times \vec{B}$ Lorentz force. If the radius of gyration is small, then the plasma is effectively tied (or frozen) to the field lines.

However to decide whether it is the motion of the magnetic field that enforces motion of the plasma or vice versa, we must compare the magnetic pressure with the gas pressure (or equivalently, compare the magnetic and kinetic energy densities).

The magnetic energy density scales with magnetic field squared and the field drops further from the Sun (e.g. a dipole field falls as $r^{-3}$), whereas the plasma kinetic energy density (which depends on the plasma density and temperature) could remain relatively high (the solar wind density drops only as $r^{-2}$ and the temperature is roughly constant). There is a transition between the magnetic field dominating the plasma close to the Sun, to where the plasma dominates and effectively carries the field with it. This transition point is known as the Alfven radius and is usually at a few tenths of an au from the Sun.

Below this radius, the plasma (sort-of) co-rotates with the field, which is anchored to the photosphere. Beyond that the plasma is (sort-of) free to move radially outwards. This how the Sun loses angular momentum.

  • $\begingroup$ Oh I see. It's nothing like conserving angular momentum, the rotation mentioned is the Sun's rotation rate $\omega$ (circa 14 deg/day), which is definitely going to be unsustainable at some distance. This is much clearer now, thanks! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 0:33

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