Sunspot Solar Observatory has been Shut Down by the FBI and Nobody’s Saying Why

The Dunn Solar Telescope at the Sunspot Solar Observatory. The observatory was shut down and all staff vacated due to security reasons. Image: Sunspot Solar Observatory.

Update: Sept. 18th.

The mystery surrounding the closure of the Sunspot Solar Observatory has been (mostly) cleared up. After being closed and vacated on Sept. 6th due to an unspecified security threat, the facility is now open, and will resume normal scientific activities next week.

In a statement, Shari Lifson, spokesperson for the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), the body that operates the Sunspot Observatory, said that the facility was closed as a “precautionary measure.”

Continue reading “Sunspot Solar Observatory has been Shut Down by the FBI and Nobody’s Saying Why”

Are We Witnessing the Start of Solar Cycle 25?

Solar sunspot
Solar sunspot
A precursor to the start of Solar Cycle 25? The Sun in hydrogen alpha from August 25th, 2018, showing enigmatic sunspot AR 2720. Image credit and copyright: Damien Weatherly.

What’s up with the Sun? As we’ve said previous, what the Sun isn’t doing is the big news of 2018 in solar astronomy. Now, the Sun sent us another curveball this past weekend, with the strange tale of growing sunspot AR 2720.

Continue reading “Are We Witnessing the Start of Solar Cycle 25?”

The Sun is Actually One of the Most Difficult Places to Reach in the Solar System. Here’s how the Parker Solar Probe Will Do It

When it comes to exploring our Solar System, there are few missions more ambitious than those that seek to study the Sun. While NASA and other space agencies have been observing the Sun for decades, the majority of these missions were conducted in orbit around Earth. To date, the closest any probes have gotten to the Sun were the Helios 1 and 2 probes, which studied the Sun during the 1970s from inside Mercury’s orbit at perihelion.

NASA intends to change all that with the Parker Solar Probe, the space probe that recently launched from Cape Canaveral, which will revolutionize our understanding of the Sun by entering it’s atmosphere (aka. the corona). Over the next seven years, the probe will use Venus’ gravity to conduct a series of slingshots that will gradually bring it closer the Sun than any mission in the history of spaceflight!

The spacecraft lifted off at 3:31 a.m. EDT on Sunday August 12th, from Space Launch Complex-37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket. At 5:33 a.m., the mission operations manager reported that the spacecraft was healthy and operating normally. Over the course of the next week, it will begin deploying its instruments in preparation for its science mission.

Once inside the Sun’s corona, the Parker Solar Probe will employ an advanced suite of instruments to revolutionize our understanding of the Sun’s atmosphere and the origin and evolution of solar wind. These and other findings will allow researchers and astronomers to improve their ability to forecast space weather events (such as solar flares), which can cause harm to astronauts and orbiting missions, disrupt radio communications and damage power grids.

As Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a recent NASA press release:

“This mission truly marks humanity’s first visit to a star that will have implications not just here on Earth, but how we better understand our universe. We’ve accomplished something that decades ago, lived solely in the realm of science fiction.”

The Parker Probes mission certainly comes with its share of challenges. In addition to the incredible heat it will have to endure, there is also the challenge of simply getting there. This is due to Earth’s orbital velocity, which travels around the Sun at a speed of 30 km/s (18.64 mps) – or about 108,000 km/h (67,000 mph). Cancelling out this velocity and traveling towards the Sun would take 55 times as much energy as it would for a craft to travel to Mars.

To address this challenge, the Parker Probe has been launched by a very powerful rocket – the ULA Delta IV, which is capable of generating 9,700 kN of thrust. In addition, it will be relying on a series of gravity assists (aka. gravitational slingshots) with Venus. These will consist of the probe conducting flybys of the Sun, then circling around Venus to get a boost in speed from the force of the planet’s gravity, and then slingshoting around the Sun again.

The launch of the Parker Solar Probe atop a ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on August 12th, 2018. Credit: Glenn Davis

Over the course of its seven-year mission, the probe will conduct seven gravity-assists with Venus and will make 24 passes of the Sun, gradually tightening its orbit in the process. Eventually, it will reach a distance of roughly 6 million km (3.8 million mi) from the Sun and fly through it’s atmosphere (aka. corona), effectively getting more than seven times closer than any spacecraft in history. In addition, the probe will be traveling at speeds of roughly 692,000 km/h (430,000 mph), which will set the record for the fastest-moving spacecraft in history.

During the first week of its journey, the spacecraft will deploy its high-gain antenna and magnetometer boom, which houses the three instruments it will use to study the Sun’s magnetic field. It will also perform the first of a two-part deployment of its five electric field antennas (aka. the FIELDS instrument suite), which will measure the properties of solar wind and help make a three-dimensional picture of the Sun’s electric fields.

Other instruments aboard the spacecraft include the Wide-Field Imager for Parker Solar Probe (WISPR), the spacecraft’s only imaging instrument. This instrument will take pictures of the large-scale structure of the corona and solar wind before the spacecraft flies through it, capturing such phenomena as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), jets, and other ejecta from the Sun.

There’s also the Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons (SWEAP) investigation instrument, which consists of two other instruments – the Solar Probe Cup (SPC) and the Solar Probe Analyzers (SPAN). These will count the most abundant particles in the solar wind – electrons, protons and helium ions – and measure their velocity, density, temperature, and other properties to improve our understanding of solar wind and coronal plasma.

Then there’s the Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun (ISOIS), which relies on the EPI-Lo and EPI-Hi instruments – Energetic Particle Instruments (EPI). Using these two instruments, ISOIS will measure electrons, protons and ions across a wide range of energies to gain a better understanding of where these particles come from, how they became accelerated, and how they move throughout the Solar System.

In addition to being the first spacecraft to explore the Sun’s corona, the Parker Solar Probe is the first spacecraft named after a living scientist – Eugene Parker, the physicist who first theorized the existence of the solar wind in 1958. As Nicola Fox, the probe’s project scientist at the JHUAPL, indicated:

“Exploring the Sun’s corona with a spacecraft has been one of the hardest challenges for space exploration. We’re finally going to be able to answer questions about the corona and solar wind raised by Gene Parker in 1958 – using a spacecraft that bears his name – and I can’t wait to find out what discoveries we make. The science will be remarkable.”

Dr. Parker was on hand to witness the early morning launch of the spacecraft. In addition to its advanced suite of scientific instruments, the probe also carries a plaque dedicating the mission to Parker. This plaque, which was attached in May, includes a quote from the renowned physicist – “Let’s see what lies ahead” – and a memory card containing more than 1.1 million names submitted by the public to travel with the spacecraft to the Sun.

Instrument testing will begin in early September and last approximately four weeks, after which the Parker Solar Probe can begin science operations. On September 28th, it will conduct its first flyby of Venus and perform its first gravity assist with the planet by early October. This will cause the spacecraft to assume a 180-day orbit of the Sun, which will bring it to a distance of about 24 million km (15 million mi).

In the end, the Parker Solar Probe will attempt to answer several long-standing mysteries about the Sun. For instance, why is the Sun’s corona 300 times hotter than the Sun’s surface, what drives the supersonic solar wind that permeates the entire Solar System, and what accelerates solar energetic particles – which can reach speeds of up to half the speed of light – away from the Sun?

Close up photo of the ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket’s engines as it launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Glenn Davis

For sixty years, scientists have pondered these questions, but were unable to answer them since no spacecraft was capable of penetrating the Sun’s corona. Thanks to advances in thermal engineering, the Parker Solar Probe is the first spacecraft that will be able to “touch” the face of the Sun and reveal its secrets. By December, the craft will transmit its first science observations back to Earth.

As Andy Driesman, the project manager of the Parker Probe mission at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), expressed:

“Today’s launch was the culmination of six decades of scientific study and millions of hours of effort. Now, Parker Solar Probe is operating normally and on its way to begin a seven-year mission of extreme science.”

Understanding the dynamics of the Sun is intrinsic to understanding the history of the Solar System and the emergence of life itself. But until now, no mission has been able to get close enough to the Sun to address its greatest mysteries. By the time the Parker Solar Probe’s mission is complete, scientists expect to have learned a great deal about the phenomena that can give rise to life, and disrupt it!

Further Reading: NASA, Youtube

This is a Photo of Neptune, From the Ground! ESO’s New Adaptive Optics Makes Ground Telescopes Ignore the Earth’s Atmosphere

In 2007, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) completed work on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in northern Chile. This ground-based telescope is the world’s most advanced optical instrument, consisting of four Unit Telescopes with main mirrors (measuring 8.2 meters in diameter) and four movable 1.8-meter diameter Auxiliary Telescopes.

Recently, the VLT was upgraded with a new instrument known as the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE), a panoramic integral-field spectrograph that works at visible wavelengths. Thanks to the new adaptive optics mode that this allows for (known as laser tomography) the VLT was able to recently acquire some images of Neptune, star clusters and other astronomical objects with impeccable clarity.

In astronomy, adaptive optics refers to a technique where instruments are able to compensate for the blurring effect caused by Earth’s atmosphere, which is a serious issue when it comes to ground-based telescopes. Basically, as light passes through our atmosphere, it becomes distorted and causes distant objects to become blurred (which is why stars appear to twinkle when seen with the naked eye).

Images of the planet Neptune obtained during the testing of the Narrow-Field adaptive optics mode of the MUSE/GALACSI instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Credit: ESO/P. Weilbacher (AIP

One solution to this problem is to deploy telescopes into space, where atmospheric disturbance is not an issue. Another is to rely on advanced technology that can artificially correct for the distortions, thus resulting in much clearer images. One such technology is the MUSE instrument, which works with an adaptive optics unit called a GALACSI – a subsystem of the Adaptive Optics Facility (AOF).

The instrument allows for two adaptive optics modes – the Wide Field Mode and the Narrow Field Mode. Whereas the former corrects for the effects of atmospheric turbulence up to one km above the telescope over a comparatively wide field of view, the Narrow Field mode uses laser tomography to correct for almost all of the atmospheric turbulence above the telescope to create much sharper images, but over a smaller region of the sky.

This consists of four lasers that are fixed to the fourth Unit Telescope (UT4) beaming intense orange light into the sky, simulating sodium atoms high in the atmosphere and creating artificial “Laser Guide Stars”. Light from these artificial stars is then used to determine the turbulence in the atmosphere and calculate corrections, which are then sent to the deformable secondary mirror of the UT4 to correct for the distorted light.

Using this Narrow Field Mode, the VLT was able to capture remarkably sharp test images of the planet Neptune, distant star clusters (such as the globular star cluster NGC 6388), and other objects. In so doing, the VLT demonstrated that its UT4 mirror is able to reach the theoretical limit of image sharpness and is no longer limited by the effects of atmospheric distortion.

The most powerful laser guide star system in the world sees first light at the Paranal Observatory. Credit: ESO

This essentially means that it is now possible for the VLT to capture images from the ground that are sharper than those taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The results from UT4 will also help engineers to make similar adaptations to the ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), which will also rely on laser tomography to conduct its surveys and accomplish its scientific goals.

These goals include the study of supermassive black holes (SMBHs) at the centers of distant galaxies, jets from young stars, globular clusters, supernovae, the planets and moons of the Solar System, and extra-solar planets. In short, the use of adaptive optics – as tested and confirmed by the VLT’s MUSE – will allow astronomers to use ground-based telescopes to study the properties of astronomical objects in much greater detail than ever before.

In addition, other adaptive optics systems will benefit from work with the Adaptive Optics Facility (AOF) in the coming years. These include the ESO’s GRAAL, a ground layer adaptive optics module that is already being used by  the Hawk-I infrared wide-field imager. In a few years, the powerful Enhanced Resolution Imager and Spectrograph (ERIS) instrument will also be added to the VLT.

Between these upgrades and the deployment of next-generation space telescopes in the coming years (like the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be deploying in 2021), astronomers expect to bringing a great deal more of the Universe “into focus”. And what they see is sure to help resolve some long-standing mysteries, and will probably create a whole lot more!

And be sure to enjoy these videos of the images obtained by the VLT of Neptune and NGC 6388, courtesy of the ESO:

Further Reading: ESO

Watch the Sun to Know When We’re Going to Have Killer Auroras

To the naked eye, the Sun puts out energy in a continual, steady state, unchanged through human history. (Don’t look at the sun with your naked eye!) But telescopes tuned to different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum reveal the Sun’s true nature: A shifting, dynamic ball of plasma with a turbulent life. And that dynamic, magnetic turbulence creates space weather.

Space weather is mostly invisible to us, but the part we can see is one of nature’s most stunning displays, the auroras. The aurora’s are triggered when energetic material from the Sun slams into the Earth’s magnetic field. The result is the shimmering, shifting bands of color seen at northern and southern latitudes, also known as the northern and southern lights.

This image of the northern lights over Canada was taken by a crew member on board the ISS in Sept. 2017. Image: NASA

There are two things that can cause auroras, but both start with the Sun. The first involves solar flares. Highly-active regions on the Sun’s surface produce more solar flares, which are sudden, localized increase in the Sun’s brightness. Often, but not always, a solar flare is coupled with a coronal mass ejection (CME).

A coronal mass ejection is a discharge of matter and electromagnetic radiation into space. This magnetized plasma is mostly protons and electrons. The CME ejection often just disperses into space, but not always. If it’s aimed in the direction of the Earth, chances are we get increased auroral activity.

The second cause of auroras are coronal holes on the Sun’s surface. A coronal hole is a region on the surface of the Sun that is cooler and less dense than surrounding areas. Coronal holes are the source of fast-moving streams of material from the Sun.

Whether it’s from an active region on the Sun full of solar flares, or whether it’s from a coronal hole, the result is the same. When the discharge from the Sun strikes the charged particles in our own magnetosphere with enough force, both can be forced into our upper atmosphere. As they reach the atmosphere, they give up their energy. This causes constituents in our atmosphere to emit light. Anyone who has witnessed an aurora knows just how striking that light can be. The shifting and shimmering patterns of light are mesmerizing.

The auroras occur in a region called the auroral oval, which is biased towards the night side of the Earth. This oval is expanded by stronger solar emissions. So when we watch the surface of the Sun for increased activity, we can often predict brighter auroras which will be more visible in southern latitudes, due to the expansion of the auroral oval.

This photo is of the aurora australis over New Zealand. Image: Paul Stewart, Public Domain, CC 1.0 Universal.

Something happening on the surface of the Sun in the last couple days could signal increased auroras on Earth, tonight and tomorrow (March 28th, 29th). A feature called a trans-equatorial coronal hole is facing Earth, which could mean that a strong solar wind is about to hit us. If it does, look north or south at night, depending on where your live, to see the auroras.

Of course, auroras are only one aspect of space weather. They’re like rainbows, because they’re very pretty, and they’re harmless. But space weather can be much more powerful, and can produce much greater effects than mere auroras. That’s why there’s a growing effort to be able to predict space weather by watching the Sun.

A powerful enough solar storm can produce a CME strong enough to damage things like power systems, navigation systems, communications systems, and satellites. The Carrington Event in 1859 was one such event. It produced one of the largest solar storms on record.

That storm occurred on September 1st and 2nd, 1859. It was preceded by an increase in sun spots, and the flare that accompanied the CME was observed by astronomers. The auroras caused by this storm were seen as far south as the Caribbean.

Sunspots are dark areas on the surface of the Sun that are cooler than the surrounding areas. They form where magnetic fields are particularly strong. The highly active magnetic fields near sunspots often cause solar flares. Image: NASA/SDO/AIA/HMI/Goddard Space Flight Center

The same storm today, in our modern technological world, would wreak havoc. In 2012, we almost found out exactly how damaging a storm of that magnitude could be. A pair of CMEs as powerful as the Carrington Event came barreling towards Earth, but narrowly missed us.

We’ve learned a lot about the Sun and solar storms since 1859. We now know that the Sun’s activity is cyclical. Every 11 years, the Sun goes through its cycle, from solar maximum to solar minimum. The maximum and minimum correspond to periods of maximum sunspot activity and minimum sunspot activity. The 11 year cycle goes from minimum to minimum. When the Sun’s activity is at its minimum in the cycle, most CMEs come from coronal holes.

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), and the combined ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) are space observatories tasked with studying the Sun. The SDO focuses on the Sun and its magnetic field, and how changes influence life on Earth and our technological systems. SOHO studies the structure and behavior of the solar interior, and also how the solar wind is produced.

Several different websites allow anyone to check in on the behavior of the Sun, and to see what space weather might be coming our way. The NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center has an array of data and visualizations to help understand what’s going on with the Sun. Scroll down to the Aurora forecast to watch a visualization of expected auroral activity.

NASA’s Space Weather site contains all kinds of news about NASA missions and discoveries around space weather. SpaceWeatherLive.com is a volunteer run site that provides real-time info on space weather. You can even sign up to receive alerts for upcoming auroras and other solar activity.

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe Will Touch the Sun — So Can You

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will launch this summer and study both the solar wind and unanswered questions about the Sun’s sizzling corona. Credit: NASA

How would you like to take an all-expenses-paid trip to the Sun? NASA is inviting people around the world to submit their names to be placed on a microchip aboard the Parker Solar Probe mission that will launch this summer. As the spacecraft dips into the blazing hot solar corona your name will go along for the ride. To sign up, submit your name and e-mail. After a confirming e-mail, your digital “seat” will be booked. You can even print off a spiffy ticket. Submissions will be accepted until April 27, so come on down!

Step right up! Head over before April 27 to put a little (intense) sunshine in your life. Click the image to go there. Credit: NASA

The Parker Solar Probe is the size of a small car and named for Prof. Eugene Parker, a 90-year-old American astrophysicist who in 1958 discovered the solar wind. It’s the first time that NASA has named a spacecraft after a living person. The Parker probe will launch between July 31 and August 19 but not immediately head for the Sun. Instead it will make a beeline for Venus for the first of seven flybys. Each gravity assist will slow the craft down and reshape its orbit (see below), so it later can pass extremely close to the Sun. The first flyby is slated for late September.

When heading to faraway places, NASA typically will fly by a planet to increase the spacecraft’s speed by robbing energy from its orbital motion. But a probe can also approach a planet on a different trajectory to slow itself down or reconfigure its orbit.

The spacecraft will swing well within the orbit of Mercury and more than seven times closer than any spacecraft has come to the Sun before. When closest at just 3.9 million miles (6.3 million km), it will pass through the Sun’s outer atmosphere called the corona and be subjected to temperatures around 2,500°F (1,377°C). The primary science goals for the mission are to trace how energy and heat move through the solar corona and to explore what accelerates the solar wind as well as solar energetic particles.

The Parker Solar Probe will use seven Venus flybys over nearly seven years to gradually shrink its orbit around the Sun, coming as close as 3.7 million miles (5.9 million km), well within the orbit of Mercury. Closest approaches (called perihelia) will happen in late December 2024 and the first half of 2025 before the mission ends. Credit: NASA

The vagaries of the solar wind, a steady flow of particles that “blows” from the Sun’s corona at more than million miles an hour, can touch Earth in beautiful ways as when it energizes the aurora borealis. But it can also damage spacecraft electronics and poorly protected power grids on the ground. That’s why scientists want to know more about how the corona works, in particular why it’s so much hotter than the surface of the Sun — temperatures there are several million degrees.

During the probe’s closest approach, the Sun’s apparent diameter will span 14° of sky. Compare that to the ½° Sun we see from Earth. Can you imagine how hot the Sun’s rays would be if it were this large from Earth? Life as we know it would be over. Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

As you can imagine, it gets really, really hot near the Sun, so you’ve got to take special precautions. To perform its mission, the spacecraft and instruments will be protected from the Sun’s heat by a 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite shield, which will keep the four instrument suites designed to study magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and take pictures of the solar wind, all at room temperature.

Similar to how the Juno probe makes close passes over Jupiter’s radiation-fraught polar regions and then loops back out to safer ground, the Parker probe will make 24 orbits around the Sun, spending a relatively short amount of face to face time with our star. At closest approach, the spacecraft will be tearing along at about 430,000 mph, fast enough to get from Washington, D.C., to Tokyo in under a minute, and will temporarily become the fastest manmade object. The current speed record is held by Helios-B when it swung around the Sun at 156,600 mph (70 km/sec) on April 17, 1976.

A composite of the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse showing the Sun’s spectacular corona. Astronomers still are sure why it’s so much hotter than the 10,000°F solar surface (photosphere). Theories include a microflares or magnetic waves that travel up from deep inside the Sun. Credit and copyright: Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

Many of you saw last August’s total solar eclipse and marveled at the beauty of the corona, that luminous spider web of light around Moon’s blackened disk. When closest to the Sun at perihelion the Parker probe will fly to within 9 solar radii (4.5 solar diameters) of its surface. That’s just about where the edge of the furthest visual extent of the corona merged with the blue sky that fine day, and that’s where Parker will be!

22 Years Of The Sun From Soho

The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) is celebrating 22 years of observing the Sun, marking one complete solar magnetic cycle in the life of our star. SOHO is a joint project between NASA and the ESA and its mission is to study the internal structure of the sun, its extensive outer atmosphere, and the origin of the solar wind.

The activity cycle in the life of the Sun is based on the increase and decrease of sunspots. We’ve been watching this activity for about 250 years, but SOHO has taken that observing to a whole new level.

Though sunspot cycles work on an 11-year period, they’re caused by deeper magnetic changes in the Sun. Over the course of 22 years, the Sun’s polarity gradually shifts. At the 11 year mark, the orientation of the Sun’s magnetic field flips between the northern and southern hemispheres. At the end of the 22 year cycle, the field has shifted back to its original orientation. SOHO has now watched that cycle in its entirety.

The magnetic field of the Sun operates on a 22 year cycle. It takes 11 years for the orientation of the field to flip between the northern and southern hemisphere, and another 11 years to flip back to its original orientation. This composite image is made up of snapshots of the Sun taken with the Extreme ultraviolet Imaging Telescope on SOHO. Image: SOHO (ESA & NASA)

SOHO is a real success story. It was launched in 1995 and was designed to operate until 1998. But it’s been so successful that its mission has been prolonged and extended several times.

An artist’s illustration of the SOHO spacecraft. Image: NASA

SOHO’s 22 years of observation has turbo-charged our space weather forecasting ability. Space weather is heavily influenced by solar activity, mostly in the form of Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs). SOHO has observed well over 20,000 of these CMEs.

Space weather affects key aspects of our modern technological world. Space-based telecommunications, broadcasting, weather services and navigation are all affected by space weather. So are things like power distribution and terrestrial communications, especially at northern latitudes. Solar weather can also degrade not only the performance, but the lifespan, of communication satellites.

Besides improving our ability to forecast space weather, SOHO has made other important discoveries. After 40 years of searching, it was SOHO that finally found evidence of seismic waves in the Sun. Called g-modes, these waves revealed that the core of the Sun is rotating 4 times faster than the surface. When this discovery came to light, Bernhard Fleck, ESA SOHO project scientist said, “This is certainly the biggest result of SOHO in the last decade, and one of SOHO’s all-time top discoveries.”

Data from SOHO revealed that the core of the Sun rotates 4 times faster than the surface. Image: ESA

SOHO also has a front row seat for comet viewing. The observatory has witnessed over 3,000 comets as they’ve sped past the Sun. Though this was never part of SOHO’s mandate, its exceptional view of the Sun and its surroundings allows it to excel at comet-finding. It’s especially good at finding sun-grazer comets because it’s so close to the Sun.

“But nobody dreamed we’d approach 200 (comets) a year.” – Joe Gurman, mission scientist for SOHO.

“SOHO has a view of about 12-and-a-half million miles beyond the sun,” said Joe Gurman in 2015, mission scientist for SOHO at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “So we expected it might from time to time see a bright comet near the sun. But nobody dreamed we’d approach 200 a year.”

A front-row seat for sun-grazing comets allows SOHO to observe other aspects of the Sun’s surface. Comets are primitive relics of the early Solar System, and observing them with SOHO can tell scientists quite a bit about where they formed. If a comet has made other trips around the Sun, then scientists can learn something about the far-flung regions of the Solar System that they’ve traveled through.

Watching these sun-grazers as they pass close to the Sun also teaches scientists about the Sun. The ionized gas in their tails can illuminate the magnetic fields around the Sun. They’re like tracers that help observers watch these invisible magnetic fields. Sometimes, the magnetic fields have torn off these tails of ionized gas, and scientists have been able to watch these tails get blown around in the solar wind. This gives them an unprecedented view of the details in the movement of the wind itself.

It’s hard to make out, but the dot in the cross-hairs is a comet streaming toward the Sun. This image is from 2015, and the comet is the 3,000th one discovered by SOHO since it was launched. Image: SOHO/ESA/NASA

SOHO is still going strong, and keeping an eye on the Sun from its location about 1.5 million km from Earth. There, it travels in a halo orbit around LaGrange point 1. (It’s orbit is adjusted so that it can communicate clearly with Earth without interference from the Sun.)

Beyond the important science that SOHO provides, it’s also a source of amazing images. There’s a whole gallery of images here, and a selection of videos here.

In 2003, SOHO captured this image of a massive solar flare, the third most powerful ever observed in X-ray wavelengths. Very spooky. Image: NASA/ESA/SOHO

You can also check out daily views of the Sun from SOHO here.

Unexpected Solar Flare is Also the Largest in Twelve Years

The past summer has been a pretty terrible time in terms of weather. In addition to raging fires in Canada’s western province of British Columbia, the south-eastern United States has been pounded by successive storms and hurricanes – i.e. Tropical Storm Emily and Hurricanes Franklin, Gert, Harvey and Irma. As if that wasn’t enough, solar activity has also been picking up lately, which could have a serious impact on space weather.

This past week, researchers from the University of Sheffield in the UK and Queen’s University Belfast detected the largest solar flare in 12 years. This massive burst of radiation took place on Wednesday, September 6th, and was one of three observed over a 48-hour period. While this latest solar flare is harmless to humans, it could pose a significant hazard to communications and GPS satellites.

The flare was also the eighth-largest detected since solar flare activity began to be monitored back in 1996. Like the two previous flares which took place during the same 48-hour period, this latest burst was an X-Class flare – the largest type of flare known to scientists. It occurred at 13:00 GMT (06:00 PDT; 09:00 EST) and was measured to have an energy level of X9.3.

Essentially, it erupted with the force of one billion thermonuclear bombs and drove plasma away from the surface at speeds of up to 2000 km/s (1243 mi/s). This phenomena, known as Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), are known to play havoc with electronics in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). And while Earth’s magnetosphere offers protection from these events, electronic systems on the planets surface are sometimes affected as well.

The event was witnessed by a team from a consortium of Universities, which included the University of Sheffield and Queen’s University Belfast. With the support of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, they conducted their observations using the Institute for Solar Physics‘ (ISP) 1-meter Swedish Solar Telescope, which is located at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory – operated by the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias.

As Professor Mihalis Mathioudakis, who led the project at Queen’s University Belfast, indicated in a recent University of Sheffield press statement:

“Solar flares are the most energetic events in our solar system and can have a major impact on earth. The dedication and perseverance of our early career scientists who planned and executed these observations led to the capture of this unique event and have helped to advance our knowledge in this area.”

The team was able to capture the opening moments of a solar flare’s life. This was extremely fortunate, since one of the biggest challenges of observing solar flares from ground-based telescopes is the short time-scales over which they erupt and evolve. In the case of X-class flares, they are capable of forming and reaching peak intensity in just about five minutes.

A powerful X2-class flare from sunspot region 2297 glows fiery yellow in this photo taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on March 11, 2015. Credit: NASA

In other words, observers – who only see a small part of the sun at any one moment – must act very quickly to ensure they catch the crucial opening moments of a flare’s evolution. As Dr Chris Nelson, from the Solar Physics and Space Plasma Research Centre (SP2RC) – who was one of the observers at the telescope – explained:

“It’s very unusual to observe the opening minutes of a flare’s life. We can only observe about 1/250th of the solar surface at any one time using the Swedish Solar Telescope, so to be in the right place at the right time requires a lot of luck. To observe the rise phases of three X-classes over two days is just unheard of.”

Another interesting thing about this flare, and the two that preceded it, was the timing. At present, astronomers expected that we were in a period of diminished solar activity. But as Dr Aaron Reid, a research fellow at at Queen’s University Belfast’s Astrophysics Research Center and a co-author on the paper, explained:

“The Sun is currently in what we call solar minimum. The number of Active Regions, where flares occur, is low, so to have X-class flares so close together is very usual. These observations can tell us how and why these flares formed so we can better predict them in the future.”

Professor Robertus von Fáy-Siebenbürgen, who leads the SP2RC, was also very enthused about the research team’s accomplishment. “We at SP2RC are very proud to have such talented scientists who can make true discoveries,” he said. “These observations are very difficult and will require hard work to fully understand what exactly has happened on the Sun.”

Predicting when and how solar flares will occur will also aid in the development of early warning and preventative measures. The is part of growing industry that seeks to protect satellites and orbital missions from harmful electromagnetic disruption. And with humanity’s presence in LEO expended to grow considerably in the coming decades, this industry is expected to become worth several billion dollars.

Yes, with everything from small satellites, space planes, commercial habitats and more space stations being deployed to space, Low Earth Orbit is expected to get pretty crowded in the coming decades. The last thing we need is for vast swaths of this machinery or – heaven forbid! – crewed spacecraft, stations and habitats to become inoperative thanks to solar flare activity.

If human beings are to truly become a space-faring race, we need to know how to predict space weather the same we do the weather here on Earth. And just like the wind, the rain, and other meteorological phenomena, we need to know when to batten down the hatches and adjust the sails.

Further Reading: University of Sheffield

Big Solar Storm Coming Our Way, Now’s Your Chance to See Auroras

X9.3 Flare blasts off the Sun. Image credit: NASA/GSFC/SDO

An X9.3 class solar flare flashes in the middle of the Sun on Sept. 6, 2017. Credit:NASA/GSFC/SDO
An X9.3 class solar flare flashes in the middle of the Sun on Sept. 6, 2017. Credit:NASA/GSFC/SDO

If you’re still riding that high from seeing the recent total solar eclipse and you want to keep the party going, now’s your chance to see another of the night sky’s wonders: an aurora. That said, a totally full Moon is going to try and wreck the party.

NASA announced that two powerful flares were just emitted on the surface of the Sun, casting coronal mass ejections in our direction. Over the course of the next couple of days, this should generate aurora activity in the sky outside the regular viewing areas. In other words, if you normally don’t see the Northern Lights where you live, you might want to spend a few hours outside tonight and tomorrow. Look up, you might see something.

The first flare, an X2.2 event, peaked on September 6 at 5:10 am EDT and the second X9.3 flare went off at 8:02 am. Both of which came from the sunspot group AR 2673. If you’ve still got those eclipse glasses, take a look at the Sun, and you should be able to see the sunspot group right now. There are two groups of sunspots close to one another, AR 2673 and AR 2674. This follows up the X4 flare emitted on September 4th.

Solar astronomers measure flares using a similar scale to other natural events, with a series of designations. The smallest are A-class, then B, C, M and finally X. Each level within the rating accounts for double the strength; it’s exponential. So, and X2 is twice as powerful as an X1, etc. The most powerful flare ever recorded was an X28 in 2003, so today’s flare is still comparatively weak to that monster.

Here's the flare in visible and ultraviolet. Credit: NASA/GSFC/SDO
Here’s the flare in visible and ultraviolet. Credit: NASA/GSFC/SDO

But, measuring in at X9.3, today’s flare is the strongest in almost a decade. The last one this strong was back in 2008. And NOAA is predicting that this flare could cause radio blackouts across the sun-facing side of the Earth. If you’re out at sea and depending on your radio transmissions, don’t be surprised if you’re getting a lot of static today.

How do you stand the best chance of seeing auroras? My favorite tool comes from NOAA’s 3-day aurora forecast. It shows you a 3-day predictive simulation for what the solar storm should do as it buffets the Earth’s magnetosphere. You can run the simulation backwards and forwards, and you’re looking glowing green areas to come across your part of the world.

But even if it doesn’t look like you’re going to see the auroras, I still think it’s worth trying. Even if you don’t get an aurora directly overhead, you can sometimes see it on the horizon, and it can be surprisingly beautiful.

Here’s my timelapse video of auroras on the horizon.

The big problem, of course, is the Moon. Tonight is also a full Moon, which means that awful glowing ball is going to rise just after sunset and blaze across the sky all night. You’re going to have a rough time seeing all but the brightest auroras. But I still think it’s worth trying.

If you want to maximize your chances of seeing an aurora, check out the Space Weather site on a regular basis. There are also services that’ll send you a text message when there’s a powerful aurora going on in your area (just Google “aurora alert text messages”. And of course, there are handy apps that’ll make your phone beep boop when there are auroras overhead. I use an app called Aurora Alert.

We’ve had three powerful flares in the last couple of days, which means that the Sun is feeling a little frisky. There could be more, and they could happen after the full Moon is over, and we’ve got some alone time with the dark sky. So stay on top of the current space weather, spend time outside, and keep your eyes on the sky. You might get a shot at seeing an aurora.

And once you’ve seen one, you’ll be hooked.

Source: NASA News Release

NASA Plans to Send CubeSat To Venus to Unlock Atmospheric Mystery

From space, Venus looks like a big, opaque ball. Thanks to its extremely dense atmosphere, which is primarily composed of carbon dioxide and nitrogen, it is impossible to view the surface using conventional methods. As a result, little was learned about its surface until the 20th century, thanks to development of radar, spectroscopic and ultraviolet survey techniques.

Interestingly enough, when viewed in the ultraviolet band, Venus looks like a striped ball, with dark and light areas mingling next to one another. For decades, scientists have theorized that this is due to the presence of some kind of material in Venus’ cloud tops that absorbs light in the ultraviolet wavelength. In the coming years, NASA plans to send a CubeSat mission to Venus in the hopes of solving this enduring mystery.

The mission, known as the CubeSat UV Experiment (CUVE), recently received funding from the Planetary Science Deep Space SmallSat Studies (PSDS3) program, which is headquartered as NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Once deployed, CUVE will determine the composition, chemistry, dynamics, and radiative transfer of Venus’ atmosphere using ultraviolet-sensitive instruments and a new carbon-nanotube light-gathering mirror.

Ultraviolet image of Venus taken by NASA’s Pioneer-Venus Orbiter in 1979, lending Venus a striped, light and dark appearance. Credit: NASA

The mission is being led by Valeria Cottini, a researcher from the University of Maryland who is also CUVE’s Principle Investigator (PI). In March of this year, NASA’s PSDS3 program selected it as one of 10 other studies designed to develop mission concepts using small satellites to investigate Venus, Earth’s moon, asteroids, Mars and the outer planets.

Venus is of particular interest to scientists, given the difficulties of exploring its thick and hazardous atmosphere. Despite the of NASA and other space agencies, what is causing the absorption of ultra-violet radiation in the planet’s cloud tops remains a mystery. In the past, observations have shown that half the solar energy the planet receives is absorbed in the ultraviolet band by the upper layer of its atmosphere – the level where sulfuric-acid clouds exist.

Other wavelengths are scattered or reflected into space, which is what gives the planet its yellowish, featureless appearance. Many theories have been advanced to explain the absorption of UV light, which include the possibility that an absorber is being transported from deeper in Venus’ atmosphere by convective processes. Once it reaches the cloud tops, this material would be dispersed by local winds, creating the streaky pattern of absorption.

The bright areas are therefore thought to correspond to regions that do not contain the absorber, while the dark areas do. As Cottini indicated in a recent NASA press release, a CubeSat mission would be ideal for investigating these possibilities:

“Since the maximum absorption of solar energy by Venus occurs in the ultraviolet, determining the nature, concentration, and distribution of the unknown absorber is fundamental. This is a highly-focused mission – perfect for a CubeSat application.”

CubeSats being deployed from the International Space Station during Expedition 47. Image: NASA

Such a mission would leverage recent improvements in miniaturization, which have allowed for the creation of smaller, box-sized satellites that can do the same jobs as larger ones. For its mission, CUVE would rely on a miniaturized ultraviolet camera and a miniature spectrometer (allowing for analysis of the atmosphere in multiple wavelengths) as well as miniaturized navigation, electronics, and flight software.

Another key component of the CUVE mission is the carbon nanotube mirror, which is part of a miniature telescope the team is hoping to include. This mirror, which was developed by Peter Chen (a contractor at NASA Goddard), is made by pouring a mixture of epoxy and carbon nanotubes into a mold. This mold is then heated to cure and harden the epoxy, and the mirror is coated with a reflective material of aluminum and silicon dioxide.

In addition to being lightweight and highly stable, this type of mirror is relatively easy to produce. Unlike conventional lenses, it does not require polishing (an expensive and time-consuming process) to remain effective. As Cottini indicated, these and other developments in CubeSat technology could facilitate low-cost missions capable of piggy-backing on existing missions throughout the Solar System.

“CUVE is a targeted mission, with a dedicated science payload and a compact bus to maximize flight opportunities such as a ride-share with another mission to Venus or to a different target,” she said. “CUVE would complement past, current, and future Venus missions and provide great science return at lower cost.”

A cubesat structure, 1U in size. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Svobodat

The team anticipates that in the coming years, the probe will be sent to Venus as part of a larger mission’s secondary payload. Once it reaches Venus, it will be launched and assume a polar orbit around the planet. They estimate that it would take CUVE one-and-a-half years to reach its destination, and the probe would gather data for a period of about six months.

If successful, this mission could pave the way for other low-cost, lightweight satellites that are deployed to other Solar bodies as part of a larger exploration mission. Cottini and her colleagues will also be presenting their proposal for the CUVE satellite and mission at the 2017 European Planetary Science Congress, which is being held from September 17th – 22nd in Riga, Latvia.

Further Reading: NASA