NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is now the closest object to the Sun that we’ve ever sent into space. On Oct. 29, 2018, at about 1:04 p.m. EDT, NASA’s probe broke the old record for the close-to-Sun distance of 42.73 million km (26.55 million miles). That record was held by the German-American Helios 2 spacecraft in 1976. And the probe will keep getting closer to the Sun.
On August 12th, 2018, NASA launched the first spacecraft that will ever “touch” the face of the Sun. This was none other than the Parker Solar Probe, a mission that will revolutionize our understanding of the Sun, solar wind, and “space weather” events like solar flares. Whereas previous missions have observed the Sun, the Parker Solar Probe will provide the closest observations in history by entering the Sun’s atmosphere (aka. the corona).
And now, just over a month into the its mission, the Parker Solar Probe has captured and returned its first-light data. This data, which consisted of images of the Milky Way and Jupiter, was collected by the probe’s four instrument suites. While the images were not aimed at the Sun, the probe’s primary focus of study, they successfully demonstrated that the Parker probe’s instruments are in good working order.
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.
Our understanding of distant stars has increased dramatically in recent decades. Thanks to improved instruments, scientists are able to see farther and clearer, thus learning more about star systems and the planets that orbit them (aka. extra-solar planets). Unfortunately, it will be some time before we develop the necessary technology to explore these stars up close.
But in the meantime, NASA and the ESA are developing missions that will allow us to explore our own Sun like never before. These missions, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe and the ESA’s (the European Space Agency) Solar Orbiter, will explore closer to the Sun than any previous mission. In so doing, it is hoped that they will resolve decades-old questions about the inner workings of the Sun.
These missions – which will launch in 2018 and 2020, respectively – will also have significant implications for life here on Earth. Not only is sunlight essential to life as we know it, solar flares can pose a major hazard for technology that humanity is becoming increasingly dependent on. This includes radio communications, satellites, power grids and human spaceflight.
And in the coming decades, Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) is expected to become increasingly crowded as commercial space stations and even space tourism become a reality. By improving our understanding of the processes that drive solar flares, we will therefore be able to better predict when they will occur and how they will impact Earth, spacecraft, and infrastructure in LEO.
As Chris St. Cyr, the Solar Orbiter project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, explained in a recent NASA press release:
“Our goal is to understand how the Sun works and how it affects the space environment to the point of predictability. This is really a curiosity-driven science.”
Both missions will focus on the Sun’s dynamic outer atmosphere, otherwise known as the corona. At present, much of the behavior of this layer of the Sun is unpredictable and not well understood. For instance, there’s the so-called “coronal heating problem”, where the corona of the Sun is so much hotter than the solar surface. Then there is the question of what drives the constant outpouring of solar material (aka. solar wind) to such high speeds.
As Eric Christian, a research scientist on the Parker Solar Probe mission at NASA Goddard, explained:
“Parker Solar Probe and Solar Orbiter employ different sorts of technology, but — as missions — they’ll be complementary. They’ll be taking pictures of the Sun’s corona at the same time, and they’ll be seeing some of the same structures — what’s happening at the poles of the Sun and what those same structures look like at the equator.”
For its mission, the Parker Solar Probe will get closer to the Sun than any spacecraft in history – as close as 6 million km (3.8 million mi) from the surface. This will replace the previous record of 43.432 million km (~27 million mi), which was established by the Helios B probe in 1976. From this position, the Parker Solar Probe will use its four suites of scientific instruments to image the solar wind and study the Sun’s magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles.
In so doing, the probe will help clarify the true anatomy of the Sun’s outer atmosphere, which will help us to understand why the corona is hotter than the Sun’s surface. Basically, while temperatures in the corona can reach as high as a few million degrees, the solar surface (aka. photosphere), experiences temperatures of around 5538 °C (10,000 °F).
Meanwhile, the Solar Orbiter will come to a distance of about 42 million km (26 million mi) from the Sun, and will assume a highly-tilted orbit that can provide the first-ever direct images of the Sun’s poles. This is another area of the Sun that scientists don’t yet understand very well, and the study of it could provide valuable clues as to what drives the Sun’s constant activity and eruptions.
Both missions will also study solar wind, which is the Sun’s most pervasive influence on the solar system. This steam of magnetized gas fills the inner Solar System, interacting with magnetic fields, atmospheres and even the surfaces of planets. Here on Earth, it is what is responsible for the Aurora Borealis and Australis, and can also play havoc with satellites and electrical systems at times.
Previous missions have led scientists to believe that the corona contributes to the process that accelerates solar wind to such high speeds. As these charged particles leave the Sun and pass through the corona, their speed effectively triples. By the time the solar wind reaches the spacecraft responsible for measuring it – 148 million km (92 million mi) from the Sun – it has plenty of time to mix with other particles from space and lose some of its defining features.
By being parked so close to the Sun, the Parker Solar Probe will able to measure the solar wind just as it forms and leaves the corona, thus providing the most accurate measurements of solar wind ever recorded. From its perspective above the Sun’s poles, the Solar Orbiter will complement the Parker Solar Probe’s study of the solar wind by seeing how the structure and behavior of solar wind varies at different latitudes.
This unique orbit will also allow the Solar Orbiter to study the Sun’s magnetic fields, since some of the Sun’s most interesting magnetic activity is concentrated at the poles. This magnetic field is far-reaching largely because of solar wind, which reaches outwards to create a magnetic bubble known as the heliosphere. Within the heliosphere, solar wind has a profound effect on planetary atmospheres and its presence protects the inner planets from galactic radiation.
In spite of this, it is still not entirely clear how the Sun’s magnetic field is generated or structured deep inside the Sun. But given its position, the Solar Orbiter will be able to study phenomena that could lead to a better understanding of how the Sun’s magnetic field is generated. These include solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which are due to variability caused by the magnetic fields around the poles.
In this way, the Parker Solar Probe and Solar Orbiter are complimentary missions, studying the Sun from different vantage points to help refine our knowledge of the Sun and heliosphere. In the process, they will provide valuable data that could help scientists to tackle long-standing questions about our Sun. This could help expand our knowledge of other star systems and perhaps even answer questions about the origins of life.
As Adam Szabo, a mission scientist for Parker Solar Probe at NASA Goddard, explained:
“There are questions that have been bugging us for a long time. We are trying to decipher what happens near the Sun, and the obvious solution is to just go there. We cannot wait — not just me, but the whole community.”
In time, and with the development of the necessary advanced materials, we might even be able to send probes into the Sun. But until that time, these missions represent the most ambitious and daring efforts to study the Sun to date. As with many other bold initiatives to study our Solar System, their arrival cannot come soon enough!
Further Reading: NASA
Have you been keeping an eye on Sol lately? One of the top astronomy stories for 2018 may be what’s not happening, and how inactive our host star has become.
The strange tale of Solar Cycle #24 is ending with an expected whimper: as of May 8th, the Earthward face of the Sun had been spotless for 73 out of 128 days thus far for 2018, or more than 57% of the time. This wasn’t entirely unexpected, as the solar minimum between solar cycle #23 and #24 saw 260 spotless days in 2009 – the most recorded in a single year since 1913. Cycle #24 got off to a late and sputtering start, and though it produced some whopper sunspots reminiscent of the Sol we knew and loved on 20th century cycles past, it was a chronic under-performer overall. Mid-2018 may see the end of cycle #24 and the start of Cycle #25… or will it?
One nice surprise during Cycle #24 was the appearance of massive sunspot AR 2192, which popped up just in time for the partial solar eclipse of October 23rd, 2014. Several times the size of the Earth, the spot complex was actually the largest seen in a quarter century. But just as “one swallow does not a Summer make,” one large sunspot group couldn’t save Solar Cycle #24.
The Sun goes through an 11-year sunspot cycle, marked by the appearance of new spots at mid- solar latitudes, which then slowly progress to make subsequent appearances closer towards the solar equator, in a pattern governed by what’s known as Spörer’s Law. The hallmark of a new solar cycle is the appearance of those high latitude spots. The Sun actually flips overall polarity every cycle, so a proper Hale Cycle for the Sun is actually 11 x 2 = 22 years long.
A big gaseous fusion bomb, the Sun actually rotates once every 25 days near its equator, and 34 days at the poles. The Sun’s rotational axis is also tipped 7.25 degrees relative to the ecliptic, with the northern rotational pole tipped towards us in early September, while the southern pole nods towards us in early March.
What’s is store for Cycle #25? One thing’s for certain: if the current trend continues, with spotless days more the rule than the exception, we could be in for a deep profound solar minimum through the 2018 to 2020 season, the likes of which would be unprecedented in modern astronomy.
Fun fact: a similar dearth of sunspots was documented during the 1645-1715 period referred to as the Maunder Minimum. During this time, crops failed and the Thames River in London froze, making “frost fairs” along its frozen shores possible. Ironically, the Maunder Minimum also began just a few decades after the dawn of the age of telescopic astronomy. During this time, the idea of “spots on the Sun” was regulated to a controversial, and almost mythical status in mainstream astronomy.
Keeping Vigil on a Tempestuous (?) Star
We’ve managed to study the last two solar cycles with unprecedented scrutiny. NASA’s STEREO-A and -B spacecraft (Only A is currently active) monitors the farside of the Sun from different vantage points. The Solar Dynamics Observatory (NASA SDO) keeps watch on the Sun across the electromagnetic spectrum. And our favorite mission, the joint NASA/European Space Agency’s SOHO spacecraft, has monitored the Sun from its sunward L1 Lagrange vantage point since it launched in 1995—nearly through one complete 22 year Hale Cycle by mid- 2020s. Not only has SOHO kept a near-continuous eye on Sol, but it’s also discovered an amazing 3,398 sungrazing comets as of September 1st, 2017… mostly due to the efforts of diligent online amateur astronomers.
…and did you know: we can actually model the solar farside currently out of view from the Earth to a high degree of fidelity thanks to the advent of powerful computational methods used in the nascent field of solar helioseismology.
Unfortunately, this low ebb in the solar cycle will also make for lackluster aurora in the years to come. It’s a shame, really… the relatively powerful cycles of the 1970s and 80s hosted some magnificent aurorae seen from mid-latitudes (and more than a few resulting blackouts). We’re still getting some minor outbursts, but you’ll have to venture “North/South of the 60” to really see the aurorae in all of its splendor over the next few years.
But don’t take our word for it: get out there and observe the Sun for yourself. Don’t let this discourage you when it comes to observing the Sun. Even near its minimum, the Sun is a fascinating target of study… and unlike most astronomical objects, the face of the Sun can change very quickly, sometimes erupting with activity from one hour to the next.
We like to use a Coronado Personal Solar Telescope to monitor the Sun in hydrogen-alpha for prominences and filaments: such a scope can be kept at the ready to pop outside at lunch time daily for a quick look. For observing sunspots and the solar photosphere in white-light, you’ll need an approved glass filter which fits snugly over the aperture end of your telescope or camera, or you can make a safe solar filter with Baader Safety Film.
Does the sunspot cycle tell the whole picture? Certainly, the Sun most likely has longer, as yet undiscovered cycles. For about a century now, astronomers have used the Wolf Sunspot Number as calculated mean average to describe the current state of activity seen on the Sun. An interesting study calls this method into question, and notes that the direction and orientation of the heliospheric current sheet surrounding the Sun seems to provide a better overall depiction of solar activity.
Other mysteries of the Sun include: just why does the solar cycle seem baked in at 11 years? Why don’t we ever see spots at the poles? And what’s in store for the future? We do know that solar output is increasing to the tune of 1% every 100 million years… and a billion years from now, Earth will be a toasty place, probably too warm to sustain liquid water on its surface…
Which brings us to the final point: what role does the solar cycle play versus albedo, global dimming and climate? This is a complex game to play: Folks have literally gone broke trying to link the solar cycle with terrestrial human affairs and everything from wheat crops to stock market fluctuations. Many a climate change-denier will at least concede that the current climate of the Earth is indeed changing, though they’ll question human activity’s role in it. The rather ominous fact is, taking only current solar activity into account, we should be in a cooling trend right now, a signal in the data that anthropogenic climate change is working hard against.
Be sure to keep tabs of Sol, as the next solar minimum approaches and we ask the question: will Cycle #25 occur at all?
Well, we’re finally emerging from our self-imposed monastic exile that is editing to mention we’ve got a book coming out later this year: The Universe Today Ultimate Guide to Viewing the Cosmos: Everything You Need to Know to Become an Amateur Astronomer, and yes, there’s a whole chapter dedicated to solar observing and aurora. The book is up for pre-order now, and comes out on October 23rd, 2018!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.)
You can also check out daily views of the Sun from SOHO here.
In today’s modern, fast-paced world, human activity is very much reliant on electrical infrastructure. If the power grids go down, our climate control systems will shut off, our computers will die, and all electronic forms of commerce and communication will cease. But in addition to that, human activity in the 21st century is also becoming increasingly dependent upon the infrastructure located in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
Aside from the many telecommunications satellites that are currently in space, there’s also the International Space Station and a fleet of GPS satellites. It is for this reason that solar flare activity is considered a serious hazard, and mitigation of it a priority. Looking to address that, a team of scientists from Harvard University recently released a study that proposes a bold solution – placing a giant magnetic shield in orbit.
The study – which was the work of Doctor Manasavi Lingam and Professor Abraham Loeb from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysicist (CfA) – recently appeared online under the title “Impact and Mitigation Strategy for Future Solar Flares“. As they explain, solar flares pose a particularly grave risk in today’s world, and will become an even greater threat due to humanity’s growing presence in LEO.
Solar flares have been a going concern for over 150 years, ever since the famous Carrington Event of 1859. Since that time, a great deal of effort has been dedicated to the study of solar flares from both a theoretical and observational standpoint. And thanks to the advances that have been made in the past 200 years in terms of astronomy and space exploration, much has been learned about the phenomena known as “space weather”.
At the same time, humanity’s increased reliance on electricity and space-based infrastructure have also made us more vulnerable to extreme space weather events. In fact, if the Carrington event were to take place today, it is estimated that it would cause global damage to electric power grids, satellites communications, and global supply chains.
The cumulative worldwide economic losses, according to a 2009 report by the Space Studies Board (“Severe Space Weather Events–Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts”), would be $10 trillion, and recovery would take several years. And yet, as Professor Loeb explained to Universe Today via email, this threat from space has received far less attention than other possible threats.
“In terms of risk from the sky, most of the attention in the past was dedicated to asteroids,” said Loeb. “They killed the dinosaurs and their physical impact in the past was the same as it will be in the future, unless their orbits are deflected. However, solar flares have little biological impact and their main impact is on technology. But a century ago, there was not much technological infrastructure around, and technology is growing exponentially. Therefore, the damage is highly asymmetric between the past and future.”
To address this, Lingham and Loeb developed a simple mathematical model to assess the economic losses caused by solar flare activity over time. This model considered the increasing risk of damage to technological infrastructure based on two factors. For one, they considered the fact that the energy of a solar flares increases with time, then coupled this with the exponential growth of technology and GDP.
What they determined was that on longer time scales, the rare types of solar flares that are very powerful become much more likely. Coupled with humanity’s growing presence and dependence on spacecraft and satellites in LEO, this will add up to a dangerous conjunction somewhere down the road. Or as Loeb explained:
“We predict that within ~150 years, there will be an event that causes damage comparable to the current US GDP of ~20 trillion dollars, and the damage will increase exponentially at later times until technological development will saturate. Such a forecast was never attempted before. We also suggest a novel idea for how to reduce the damage from energetic particles by a magnetic shield. This was my idea and was not proposed before.”
To address this growing risk, Lingham and Loeb also considered the possibility of placing a magnetic shield between Earth and the Sun. This shield would be placed at the Earth-Sun Lagrange Point 1, where it would be able to deflect charged particles and create an artificial bowshock around Earth. In this sense, this shield would protect Earth’s in a way that is similar to what its magnetic field already does, but to greater effect.
Based on their assessment, Lingham and Loeb indicate that such a shield is technically feasible in terms of its basic physical parameters. They were also able to provide a rudimentary timeline for the construction of this shield, not to mention some rough cost assessments. As Loeb indicated, such a shield could be built before this century is over, and at a fraction of the cost of what would be incurred from solar flare damage.
“The engineering project associated with the magnetic shield that we propose could take a few decades to construct in space,” he said. “The cost for lifting the needed infrastructure to space (weighting 100,000 tons) will likely be of order 100 billions of dollars, much less than the expected damage over a century.”
Interestingly enough, the idea of using a magnetic shield to protect planets has been proposed before. For example, this type of shield was also the subject of a presentation at this year’s “Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop“, which was hosted by NASA’s Planetary Science Division (PSD). This shield was recommended as a means of enhancing Mars’ atmosphere and facilitating crewed mission to its surface in the future.
During the course of the presentation, titled “A Future Mars Environment for Science and Exploration“, NASA Director Jim Green discussed how a magnetic shield could protect Mars’ tenuous atmosphere from solar wind. This would allow it to replenish over time, which would have the added benefit of warming Mars up and allowing liquid water to again flow on its surface. If this sounds similar to proposals for terraforming Mars, that’s because it is!
Beyond Earth and the Solar System, the implications for this study are quite overwhelming. In recent years, many terrestrial planets have been found orbiting within nearby M-type (aka. red dwarf) star systems. Because of the way these planets orbit closely to their respective suns, and the variable and unstable nature of M-type stars, scientists have expressed doubts about whether or not these planets could actually be habitable.
In short, scientists have ventured that over the course of billions of years, rocky planets that orbit close to their suns, are tidally-locked with them, and are subject to regular solar flares would lose their atmospheres. In this respect, magnetic shields could be a possible solution to creating extra-solar colonies. Place a large shield in orbit at the L1 Lagrange point, and you never have to worry again about powerful magnetic storms ravaging the planet!
On top of that, this study offers a possible resolution to the Fermi Paradox. When looking for sign of Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (ETI), it might make sense to monitor distant stars for signs of an orbiting magnetic shield. As Prof. Leob explained, such structures may have already been detected around distant stars, and could explain some of the unusual observations astronomers have made:
“The imprint of a shield built by another civilization could involve the changes it induces in the brightness of the host star due to occultation (similar behavior to Tabby’s star) if the structure is big enough. The situation could be similar to Dyson’s spheres, but instead of harvesting the energy of the star the purpose of the infrastructure is to protect a technological civilization on a planet from the flares of its host star.”
Further Reading: arXiv
Earth doesn’t have a corner on auroras. Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune have their own distinctive versions. Jupiter’s are massive and powerful; Martian auroras patchy and weak.
Auroras are caused by streams of charged particles like electrons that originate with solar winds and in the case of Jupiter, volcanic gases spewed by the moon Io. Whether solar particles or volcanic sulfur, the material gets caught in powerful magnetic fields surrounding a planet and channeled into the upper atmosphere. There, the particles interact with atmospheric gases such as oxygen or nitrogen and spectacular bursts of light result. With Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus excited hydrogen is responsible for the show.
Auroras on Earth, Jupiter and Saturn have been well-studied but not so on the ice-giant planet Uranus. In 2011, the Hubble Space Telescope took the first-ever image of the auroras on Uranus. Then in 2012 and 2014 a team from the Paris Observatory took a second look at the auroras in ultraviolet light using the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) installed on Hubble.
Two powerful bursts of solar wind traveling from the sun to Uranus stoked the most intense auroras ever observed on the planet in those years. By watching the auroras over time, the team discovered that these powerful shimmering regions rotate with the planet. They also re-discovered Uranus’ long-lost magnetic poles, which were lost shortly after their discovery by Voyager 2 in 1986 due to uncertainties in measurements and the fact that the planet’s surface is practically featureless. Imagine trying to find the north and south poles of a cue ball. Yeah, something like that.
In both photos, the auroras look like glowing dots or patchy spots. Because Uranus’ magnetic field is inclined 59° to its spin axis (remember, this is the planet that rotates on its side!) , the auroral spots appear far from the planet’s north and south geographic poles. They almost look random but of course they’re not. In 2011, the spots lie close to the planet’s north magnetic pole, and in 2012 and 2014, near the south magnetic pole — just like auroras on Earth.
An auroral display can last for hours here on the home planet, but in the case of the 2011 Uranian lights, they pulsed for just minutes before fading away.
Want to know more? Read the team’s findings in detail here.