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

TRAPPIST-1 Is Showing A Bit Too Much Flare

It turns out that the TRAPPIST-1 star may be a terrible host for the TRAPPIST planets announced in February.

The TRAPPIST-1 star, a Red Dwarf, and its 7 planets caused a big stir in February when it was discovered that 3 of the rocky planets are in the habitable zone. But now more data is coming which suggests that the TRAPPIST-1 star is much too volatile for life to exist on its planets.

Red Dwarfs are much dimmer than our Sun, but they also last much longer. Their lifetimes are measured in trillions of years, not billions. Their long lives make them intriguing targets in the search for habitable worlds. But some types of Red Dwarf stars can be quite unstable when it comes to their magnetism and their flaring.

Our own Sun produces flares, but we are protected by our magnetosphere, and by the distance from the Sun to Earth. Credit: NASA/ Solar Dynamics Observatory,

A new study analyzed the photometric data on TRAPPIST-1 that was obtained by the K2 mission. The study, which is from the Konkoly Observatory and was led by astronomer Krisztián Vida, suggests that TRAPPIST-1 flares too frequently and too powerfully to allow life to form on its planets.

The study identified 42 strong flaring events in 80 days of observation, of which 5 were multi-peaked. The average time between flares was only 28 hours. These flares are caused by stellar magnetism, which causes the star to suddenly release a lot of energy. This energy is mostly in the X-ray or UV range, though the strongest can be seen in white light.

While it’s true that our Sun can flare, things are much different in the TRAPPIST system. The planets in that system are closer to their star than Earth is to the Sun. The most powerful flare observed in this data correlates to the most powerful flare observed on our Sun: the so-called Carrington Event.The Carrington Event happened in 1859. It was an enormously powerful solar storm, in which a coronal mass ejection struck Earth’s magnetosphere, causing auroras as far south as the Caribbean. It caused chaos in telegraph systems around the world, and some telegraph operators received electric shocks.

Earth survived the Carrington Event, but things would be much different on the TRAPPIST worlds. Those planets are much closer to their Sun, and the authors of this study conclude that storms like the Carrington Event are not isolated incidents on TRAPPIST-1. They occur so frequently that they would destroy any stability in the atmosphere, making it extremely difficult for life to develop. In fact, the study suggests that the TRAPPIST-1 storms could be hundreds or thousands of times more powerful than the storms that hit Earth.

A study from 2016 shows that these flares would cause great disturbances in the chemical composition of the atmosphere of the planets subjected to them. The models in that study suggest that it could take 30,000 years for an atmosphere to recover from one of these powerful flares. But with flares happening every 28 hours on TRAPPIST-1, the habitable planets may be doomed.

The Earth’s magnetic field helps protects us from the Sun’s outbursts, but it’s doubtful that the TRAPPIST planets have the same protection. This study suggests that planets like those in the TRAPPIST system would need magnetospheres of tens to hundreds of Gauss, whereas Earth’s magnetosphere is only about 0.5 Gauss. How could the TRAPPIST planets produce a magnetosphere powerful enough to protect their atmosphere?

It’s not looking good for the TRAPPIST planets. The solar storms that hit these worlds are likely just too powerful. Even without these storms, there are other things that may make these planets uninhabitable. They’re still an intriguing target for further study. The James Webb Space Telescope should be able to characterize the atmosphere, if any, around these planets.

Just don’t be disappointed if the James Webb confirms what this study tells us: the TRAPPIST system is a dead, lifeless, grouping of planets around a star that can’t stop flaring.

Solar Probe Plus Will ‘Touch’ The Sun

Coronal Mass Ejections (aka. solar flares) are a seriously hazardous thing. Whenever the Sun emits a burst of these charged particles, it can play havoc with electrical systems, aircraft and satellites here on Earth. Worse yet is the harm it can inflict on astronauts stationed aboard the ISS, who do not have the protection of Earth’s atmosphere. As such, it is obvious why scientists want to be able to predict these events better.

For this reason, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory – a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based non-profit engineering organization – are working to develop specialized sensors for NASA’s proposed solar spacecraft. Launching in 2018, this spacecraft will fly into the Sun atmosphere and “touch” the face of the Sun to learn more about its behavior.

This spacecraft – known as the Solar Probe Plus (SPP) – is currently being designed and built by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Once it is launched, the SPP will use seven Venus flybys over nearly seven years to gradually shrink its orbit around the Sun. During this time, it will conduct 24 flybys of the Sun and pass into the Sun’s upper atmosphere (corona), passing within 6.4 million km (4 million mi) of its surface.

At this distance, it will have traveled 37.6 million km (23.36 million mi) closer to the Sun than any spacecraft in history. At the same time, it will set a new record for the fastest moving object ever built by human beings – traveling at speeds of up to 200 km/sec (124.27 mi/s). And last but not least, it will be exposed to heat and radiation that no spacecraft has ever faced, which will include temperatures in excess of 1371 °C (2500 °F).

As Seamus Tuohy, the Director of the Space Systems Program Office at Draper, said in a CfA press release:

“Such a mission would require a spacecraft and instrumentation capable of withstanding extremes of radiation, high velocity travel and the harsh solar condition—and that is the kind of program deeply familiar to Draper and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.”

In addition to being an historic first, this probe will provide new data on solar activity and help scientists develop ways of forecasting major space-weather events – which impact life on Earth. This is especially important in an age when people are increasingly reliant on technology that can be negatively impacted by solar flares – ranging from aircraft and satellites to appliances and electrical devices.

According to a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences, it is estimated that a huge solar event today could cause two trillion dollars in damage in the US alone – and places like the eastern seaboard would be without power for up to a year. Without electricity to provide heating, utilities, light, and air-conditioning, the death toll from such an event would be significant.

As such, developing advanced warning systems that could reliably predict when a coronal mass ejection is coming is not just a matter of preventing damage, but saving lives. As Justin C. Kasper, the principal investigator at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and a professor in space science at the University of Michigan, said:

“[I]n addition to answering fundamental science questions, the intent is to better understand the risks space weather poses to the modern communication, aviation and energy systems we all rely on. Many of the systems we in the modern world rely on—our telecommunications, GPS, satellites and power grids—could be disrupted for an extended period of time if a large solar storm were to happen today. Solar Probe Plus will help us predict and manage the impact of space weather on society.”

To this end, the SPP has three major scientific objectives. First, it will seek to trace the flow of energy that heats and accelerates the solar corona and solar wind. Second, its investigators will attempt to determine the structure and dynamics of plasma and magnetic fields as the source of solar wind. And last, it will explore the mechanisms that accelerate and transport energetic particles – specifically electrons, protons, and helium ions.

To do this, the SPP will be equipped with an advanced suite of instruments. One of the most important of these is the one built by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory with technical support from Draper. Known as the Faraday Cup – and named after famous electromagnetic scientists Michael Faraday – this device will be operated by SAO and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Designed to withstand interference from electromagnetic radiation, the Farady Cup will measure the velocity and direction of the Sun’s charged particles, and will be only two positioned outside of the SPP’s protective sun shield – another crucial component. Measuring 11.43 cm (4.5 inches) thick, this carbon composition shield will ensure that the probe can withstand the extreme conditions as it conducts its many flybys through the Sun’s corona.

Naturally, the mission presents several challenges, not the least of which will be capturing data while operating within an extreme environment, and while traveling at extreme speeds. But the payoff is sure to be worth it. For years, astronomers have studied the Sun, but never from inside the Sun’s atmosphere.

By flying through the birthplace of the highest-energy solar particles, the SPP is set to advance our understanding of the Sun and the origin and evolution of the solar wind. This knowledge could not only help us avoid a natural catastrophe here on Earth, but help advance our long-term goal of exploring (and even colonizing) the Solar System.

Further Reading: CfA

Either Stars are Strange, or There Are 234 Aliens Trying to Contact Us

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope stands out against the breaktaking backdrop of the Sacramento Mountains. 234 stars out of the Sloan's catalogue of over 2.5 million stars are producing an unexplained pulsed signal. Image: SDSS, Fermilab Visual Media Services

We all want there to be aliens. Green ones, pink ones, brown ones, Greys. Or maybe Vulcans, Klingons, even a being of pure energy. Any type will do.

That’s why whenever a mysterious signal or energetic fluctuation arrives from somewhere in the cosmos and hits one of our many telescopes, headlines erupt across the media: “Have We Finally Detected An Alien Signal?” or “Have Astronomers Discovered An Alien Megastructure?” But science-minded people know that we’re probably getting ahead of ourselves.

Skepticism still rules the day when it comes to these headlines, and the events that spawn them. That’s the way it should be, because we’ve always found a more prosaic reason for whatever signal from space we’re talking about. But, being skeptical is a balancing act; it doesn’t mean being dismissive.

What we’re talking about here is a new study from E.F. Borra and E. Trottier, two astronomers at Laval University in Canada. Their study, titled “Discovery of peculiar periodic spectral modulations in a small fraction of solar type stars” was just published at arXiv.org. ArXiv.org is a pre-print website, so the paper itself hasn’t been peer reviewed yet. But it is generating interest.

The two astronomers used data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and analyzed the spectra of 2.5 million stars. Of all those stars, they found 234 stars that are producing a puzzling signal. That’s only a tiny percentage. And, they say, these signals “have exactly the shape of an ETI signal” that was predicted in a previous study by Borra.

A portion of the 234 stars that are sources of the pulsed ETI-like signal. Note that all the stars are in the narrow spectral range F2 to K1, very similar to our own Sun. Image: Ermanno F. Borra and Eric Trottier
A portion of the 234 stars that are sources of the pulsed ETI-like signal. Note that all the stars are in the narrow spectral range F2 to K1, very similar to our own Sun. Image: Ermanno F. Borra and Eric Trottier

Prediction is a key part of the scientific method. If you develop a theory, your theory looks better and better the more you can use it to correctly predict some future events based on it. Look how many times Einstein’s predictions based on Relativity have been proven correct.

The 234 stars in Borra and Trottier’s study aren’t random. They’re “overwhelmingly in the F2 to K1 spectral range” according to the abstract. That’s significant because this is a small range centred around the spectrum of our own Sun. And our own Sun is the only one we know of that has an intelligent species living near it. If ours does, maybe others do too?

The authors acknowledge five potential causes of their findings: instrumental and data reduction effects, rotational transitions in molecules, the Fourier transform of spectral lines, rapid pulsations, and finally the ETI signal predicted by Borra (2012). They dismiss molecules or pulsations as causes, and they deem it highly unlikely that the signals are caused by the Fourier analysis itself. This leaves two possible sources for the detected signals. Either they’re a result of the Sloan instrument itself and the data reduction, or they are in fact a signal from extra-terrestrial intelligences.

This graph shows the number of detected signals by Spectral Type of star. Image: Ermanno F. Borra and Eric Trottier
This graph shows the number of detected signals by Spectral Type of star. Image: Ermanno F. Borra and Eric Trottier

The detected signals are pulses of light separated by a constant time interval. These types of signals were predicted by Borra in his 2012 paper, and they are what he and Trottier set out to find in the Sloan data. It may be a bit of a red flag when scientist’s find the very thing they predicted they would find. But Trottier and Borra are circumspect about their own results.

As the authors say in their paper, “Although unlikely, there is also a possibility that the signals are due to highly peculiar chemical compositions in a small fraction of galactic halo stars.” It may be unlikely, but lots of discoveries seem unlikely at first. Maybe there is a tiny subset of stars with chemical peculiarities that make them act in this way.

To sum it all up, the two astronomers have found a tiny number of stars, very similar to our own Sun, that seem to be the source of pulsed signals. These signals are the same as predicted if a technological society was using powerful lasers to communicate with distant stars.

We all want there to be aliens, and maybe the first sign of them will be pulsed light signals from stars like our own Sun. But it’s all still very preliminary, and as the authors acknowledge, “…at this stage, this hypothesis needs to be confirmed with further work.”

That further work is already being planned by the Breakthrough Listen Initiative, a project that searches for intelligent life in the cosmos. They plan to use the Automated Planet Finder telescope at the Lick Observatory to further observe some of Borra’s 234 stars.

The Breakthrough team don’t seem that excited about Borra’s findings. They’ve already poured cold water on it, trotting out the old axiom that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” in a statement on Borra’s paper. They also give Borra’s findings a score of 0 to 1 on the Rio Scale. The Rio Scale is something used by the international SETI community to rank detections of phenomena that could indicate advanced life beyond Earth. A rating of 0 to 1 means its insignificant.

Better reign in the headline writers.

Seeking the Summer Solstice

Can you feel the heat? If you find yourself north of the equator, astronomical summer kicks off today with the arrival of the summer solstice. In the southern hemisphere, the reverse is true, as today’s solstice marks the start of winter.

Thank our wacky seasons, and the 23.4 degree tilt of the Earth’s axis for the variation in insolation. Today, all along the Tropic of Cancer at latitude 23.4 degrees north, folks will experience what’s known as Lahiana Noon, as the Sun passes through the zenith directly overhead. Eratosthenes first noted this phenomena in 3rd century BC from an account in the town of Syene (modern day Aswan), 925 kilometers to the south of Alexandria, Egypt. The account mentioned how, at noon on the day of the solstice, the Sun shined straight down a local well, and cast no shadows. He went on to correctly deduce that the differing shadow angles between the two locales is due to the curvature of the Earth, and went on to calculate the curvature of the planet for good measure. Not a bad bit of reasoning, for an experiment that you can do today.

Eratosthenes' classic experiment. Wikimedia Commons image in the Public Domain.
Eratosthenes’ classic experiment. Wikimedia Commons image in the Public Domain.

And although we call it the Tropic of Cancer, and the astrological sign of the Crab begins today as the Sun passes 90 degrees longitude along the ecliptic plane as seen from Earth, the Sun now actually sits in the astronomical constellation of Taurus on the June northward solstice. Thank precession; live out a normal 72 year human life span, and the solstice will move one degree along the ecliptic—stick around about 26,000 years, and it will complete one circuit of the zodiac. That’s something that your astrologer won’t tell you.

The tilt of the Earth's axis during the June northward solstice. Image credit: NASA.
The tilt of the Earth’s axis during the June northward solstice. Image credit: NASA.

The solstice in the early 21st century actually falls on June 20th, thanks to the ‘reset’ the Gregorian calendar received in 2000 from the addition of a century year leap day. The actual moment the Sun reaches its northernmost declination today and slowly reverses its apparent motion is 22:34 Universal Time (UT).  In 2016, the Moon reaches Full just 11 hours to the solstice. The last time a Full Moon fell within 24 hours of a solstice was December 2010, and we had a total lunar eclipse to boot. Such a coincidence won’t occur again until December 2018. You get a good study in celestial mechanics 101 tonight, as the Full Moon rises opposite to the setting Sun. The Moon occupies the southern region of the sky where the Sun will reside this December during the other solstice, when the Full Moon will then ride high in the night sky, and gets ever higher as we head towards a Major Lunar Standstill in 2025.

Image credit: Dave Dickinson
The back alley of our Morocco Air BnB mimics Eratosthenes’ well. Image credit: Dave Dickinson

Of course, this motion of the Sun through the year is all an illusion from our terrestrial biased viewpoint. We’re actually racing around the Sun to the tune of 30 kilometers per second. You wouldn’t know it as summer heats up in the northern hemisphere, but we’re headed towards aphelion or the farthest point from the Sun for the Earth on July 4th at 152 million kilometers or 1.017 astronomical units (AU) distant. And the latest sunset as seen from latitude 40 degrees actually occurs on June 27th at 7:33 PM (not accounting for Daylight Saving Time) go much further north (like the Canadian Maritimes or the UK) and true astronomical darkness never occurs in late June.

And speaking of the Sun, we’re wrapping up the end of the 11 year solar cycle this year… and there are hints that we may be in for another profound solar minimum similar to 2009. We’ve already had a brief spotless stretch last month, and some solar astronomers have predicted that solar cycle #25 may be absent all together. This means a subsidence in aurorae, and an uncharacteristically blank Sol.

But don’t despair and pack it in for the summer. As a consolation prize, high northern latitudes have in recent years played host to electric blue noctilucent clouds near the June solstice. Also, the International Space Station enters a second period of full illumination through the entire length of its orbit from July 26th to 28th, making for the possibility of seeing multiple passes in a single night.

A display of noctilucent clouds over Blackrod, UK. Image credit and copyright: Dave Walker.
A display of noctilucent clouds over Blackrod, UK. Image credit and copyright: Dave Walker.

And folks in the Islamic world (and travelers such as ourselves currently in Morocco) can rejoice, as the Full Moon means that we’re half way through the fasting lunar month Ramadan. This is an especially tough one, as Ramadan 2016 goes right through the summer solstice, making for only a brief six hour span to break the fast each  night and prepare for another 18 hour long stretch… and to repeat this pattern for 29 days straight. It’s a fascinating time of night markets and celebration, but for travelers, it also means odd opening hours and delays.

Searching for the solstice and other strange astronomical alignments at M'Soura, Morocco. Image credit: Dave Dickinson
Searching for the solstice and other strange astronomical alignments at M’Soura, Morocco. Image credit: Dave Dickinson

See any curious solstice shadow alignments in your neighborhood today?

Happy Lahiana Noon… from here on out, northern viewers slowly start to take back the night!

 

Watch Mercury Transit the Sun in Multiple Wavelengths

On May 9, 2016, Mercury passed directly between the Sun and Earth. No one had a better view of the event than the space-based Solar Dynamics Observatory, as it had a completely unobstructed view of the entire seven-and-a-half-hour event! This composite image, above, of Mercury’s journey across the Sun was created with visible-light images from the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager on SDO, and below is a wonderful video of the transit, as it includes views in several different wavelenths (and also some great soaring music sure to stir your soul).

Mercury transits of the Sun happen about 13 times each century, however the next one will occur in only about three and a half years, on November 11, 2019. But then it’s a long dry spell, as the following one won’t occur until November 13, 2032.

Make sure you check out the great gallery of Mercury transit images from around the world compiled by our David Dickinson.

A Star With A Disk Of Water Ice? Meet HD 100546

It might seem incongruous to find water ice in the disk of gas and dust surrounding a star. Fire and ice just don’t mix. We would never find ice near our Sun.

But our Sun is old. About 5 billion years old, with about 5 billion more to go. Some younger stars, of a type called Herbig Ae/Be stars (after American astronomer George Herbig,) are so young that they are surrounded by a circumstellar disk of gas and dust which hasn’t been used up by the formation of planets yet. For these types of stars, the presence of water ice is not necessarily unexpected.

Water ice plays an important role in a young solar system. Astronomers think that water ice helps large, gaseous, planets to form. The presence of ice makes the outer section of a planetary disk more dense. This increased density allows the cores of gas planets to coalesce and form.

Young solar systems have what is called a snowline. It is the boundary between terrestrial and gaseous planets. Beyond this snowline, ice in the protoplanetary disk encourages gas planets to form. Inside this snowline, the lack of water ice contributes to the formation of terrestrial planets. You can see this in our own Solar System, where the snowline must have been between Mars and Jupiter.

A team of astronomers using the Gemini telescope observed the presence of water ice in the protoplanetary disk surrounding the star HD 100546, a Herbig Ae/Be star about 320 light years from us. At only 10 million years old, this star is rather young, and it is a well-studied star. The Hubble has found complex, spiral patterns in the disk, and so far these patterns are unexplained.

HD 100546 is also notable because in 2013, research showed the probable ongoing formation of a planet in its disk. This presented a rare opportunity to study the early stages of planet formation. Finding ice in the disk, and discovering how deep it exists in the disk, is a key piece of information in understanding planet formation in young solar systems.

Finding this ice took some clever astro-sleuthing. The Gemini telescope was used, with its Near-Infrared Coronagraphic Imager (NICI), a tool used to study gas giants. The team installed H2O ice filters to help zero in on the presence of water ice. The protoplanetary disk around young stars, as in the case of HD 100546, is a mixed up combination of dusts and gases, and isolating types of materials in the disk is not easy.

Water ice has been found in disks around other Herbig Ae/Be stars, but the depth of distribution of that ice has not been easy to understand. This paper shows that the ice is present in the disk, but only shallowly, with UV photo desorption processes responsible for destroying water ice grains closer to the star.

It may seem trite so say that more study is needed, as the authors of the study say. But really, in science, isn’t more study always needed? Will we ever reach the end of understanding? Certainly not. And certainly not when it comes to the formation of planets, which is a pretty important thing to understand.