Solar Physics: Why study it? What can it teach us about finding life beyond Earth?

Image of a coronal mass ejection being discharged from the Sun. (Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Solar Dynamics Observatory)

Universe Today has investigated the importance of studying impact craters, planetary surfaces, exoplanets, and astrobiology, and what these disciplines can teach both researchers and the public about finding life beyond Earth. Here, we will discuss the fascinating field of solar physics (also called heliophysics), including why scientists study it, the benefits and challenges of studying it, what it can teach us about finding life beyond Earth, and how upcoming students can pursue studying solar physics. So, why is it so important to study solar physics?

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If Hycean Worlds Really Exist, What are Their Oceans Like?

Artist's impression of possible hycean world K2-18 b. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI)

Astronomers have been on the hunt for a new kind of exoplanet in recent years – one especially suited for habitability. They’re called hycean worlds, and they’re characterized by vast liquid water oceans and thick hydrogen-rich atmospheres. The name was coined in 2021 by Cambridge astronomer Nikku Madhusudhan, whose team got a close-up look at one possible hycean world, K2-18b, using the James Webb Space Telescope in 2023. In a newly accepted paper this January, Madhusudhan and coauthor Frances Rigby examined what the internal structure of hycean planets might look like, and what that means for the possibility of finding life within.

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Scientists Track How a Giant Wave Moved Through Our Galactic Backyard

Illustration: Radcliffe Wave model
This illustration shows how the Radcliffe Wave moves through the backyard of our sun (shown as a yellow dot). The white line represents the wave's current shape and motion. Magenta and green lines show how the wave is expected to move over time. (Credit: Ralf Konietzka, Alyssa Goodman and WorldWide Telescope via CfA)

Astronomers say there’s a wave rippling through our galactic neighborhood that’s playing a part in the birth and death of stars — and perhaps in Earth’s history as well.

The cosmic ripple, known as the Radcliffe Wave, was identified in astronomical data four years ago — but in a follow-up study published today by the journal Nature, a research team lays out fresh evidence that the wave is actually waving, like the wave that fans in a sports stadium create by taking turns standing up and sitting down.

“Similar to how fans in a stadium are being pulled back to their seats by the Earth’s gravity, the Radcliffe Wave oscillates due to the gravity of the Milky Way,” study lead author Ralf Konietzka, a researcher at Harvard and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, or CfA, said in a news release

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JWST Sees a Milky Way-Like Galaxy Coming Together in the Early Universe

The ancient Firefly Sparkle galaxy is precursor to galaxies like the Milky Way. The JWST found ten separate clusters in the galaxy that show how the galaxy is growing through mergers. Image Credit: Mowla et al. 2024.

The gigantic galaxies we see in the Universe today, including our own Milky Way galaxy, started out far smaller. Mergers throughout the Universe’s 13.7 billion years gradually assembled today’s massive galaxies. But they may have begun as mere star clusters.

In an effort to understand the earliest galaxies, the JWST has examined their ancient light for clues as to how they became so massive.

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The Brightest Object Ever Seen in the Universe

This artist’s impression shows the record-breaking quasar J059-4351, the bright core of a distant galaxy that is powered by a supermassive black hole. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

It’s an exciting time in astronomy today, where records are being broken and reset regularly. We are barely two months into 2024, and already new records have been set for the farthest black hole yet observed, the brightest supernova, and the highest-energy gamma rays from our Sun. Most recently, an international team of astronomers using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile reportedly saw the brightest object ever observed in the Universe: a quasar (J0529-4351) located about 12 billion light years away that has the fastest-growing supermassive black hole (SMBH) at its center.

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European Satellite ERS-2 to Reenter Earth’s Atmosphere This Week

ERS-2
An artist's conception of ERS-2 in orbit. ESA

One of the largest reentries in recent years, ESA’s ERS-2 satellite is coming down this week.

After almost three decades in orbit, an early Earth-observation satellite is finally coming down this week. The European Space Agency’s (ESA) European Remote Sensing satellite ERS-2 is set to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere on or around Wednesday, February 21st.

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Solar Eclipses Provide a Rare Way to Study Cloud Formation

Types of solar eclipses. Credits (left to right): Hinode/XRT, NASA/Aubrey Gemignani, NASA/Noah Moran.

April 8’s North American solar eclipse is just around the corner, and it has astronomy fans and weather aficionados alike preparing for an incredible show. But it’s not just fun and games. Eclipses are rare opportunities for scientists to study phenomena that only come around once in a while.

Last week, a team of meteorological experts from the Netherlands released a paper describing how eclipses can disrupt the formation of certain types of clouds. Their findings have implications for futuristic geoengineering schemes that propose to artificially block sunlight to combat climate change.

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China's Chang'e-8 Mission Will Try to Make Bricks on the Moon

Artist's impression of Chang'e-8. Credit: CNSA.

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) has put out a call for international and industry partners to contribute science payloads to its Chang’e-8 lunar lander, set for launch to the Moon in 2028. The mission, which will involve a lander, a rover, and a utility robot, will be China’s first attempt at in-situ resource utilization on the Moon, using lunar regolith to produce brick-like building materials.

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Even Stars Like the Sun Can Unleash Savage Flares in Their Youth

Artist's concept of the flare that burst out from the young nearby star HD 283572. The flare was detected by the Submillimeter Array on Mauna Kea, in Hawai'i. Credit: CfA/Melissa Weiss.
Artist's concept of the flare that burst out from the young nearby star HD 283572. The flare was detected by the Submillimeter Array on Mauna Kea, in Hawai'i. Credit: CfA/Melissa Weiss.

Why would a young Sun-like star suddenly belch out a hugely bright flare? That’s what astronomers at Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory want to know after they spotted such an outburst using a sensitive submillimeter-wave telescope. According to Joshua Bennett Lovell, leader of a team that observed the star’s activity, these kinds of flare events are rare in such young stars, particularly at millimeter wavelengths. So, what’s happening there?

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Radio Telescope Confirms Free-Floating Binary Planets in the Orion Nebula

Free-floating JuMBOs (Jupiter-Mass Binary Objects) don't conform to our present stellar and planetary formation theories. Credit: Gemini Observatory/Jon Lomberg

Planets orbit stars. That’s axiomatic. Or at least it was until astronomers started finding rogue planets, also called free-floating planets (FFPs). Some of these planets were torn from their stars’ gravitational grip and now drift through the cosmos, untethered to any star. Others formed in isolation.

Now, astronomers have discovered that some FFPs can orbit each other in binary relationships as if swapping their star for another rogue planet.

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