Power Grids and Satellites Are More at Risk from Extreme Solar Storms Than We Thought

Exactly how dangerous are solar storms? Scientists think the Carrington Event was one of the most powerful ones to ever hit Earth. They also think that storms that powerful only happen every couple centuries or so. But a new study says we can expect more storms equally as strong, and more often.

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How The Sun’s Scorching Corona Stays So Hot

corona

We’ve got a mystery on our hands. The surface of the sun has a temperature of about 6,000 Kelvin – hot enough to make it glow bright, hot white. But the surface of the sun is not its last later, just like the surface of the Earth is not its outermost layer. The sun has a thin but extended atmosphere called the corona. And that corona has a temperature of a few million Kelvin.

How does the corona have such a higher temperature than the surface?

Like I said, a mystery.

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Here’s the First Image of the Sun from the Parker Solar Probe

The Parker Solar Probe's WISPR (Wide-field Imager for Solar Probe) instrument captured this image of a coronal streamer on Nov. 8th, 2018. Coronal streamers are structures of solar material within the Sun's atmosphere, the corona, that usually overlie regions of increased solar activity. The fine structure of the streamer is very clear, with at least two rays visible. The bright object near the center of the image is Mercury, and the dark spots are a result of background correction. Credits: NASA/Naval Research Laboratory/Parker Solar Probe

It’s been 124 days since the Parker Solar Probe was launched, and several weeks since it made the closest approach any spacecraft has ever made to a star. Now, scientists are getting their hands on the data from the close approach. Four researchers at the recent meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C. shared what they hope they can learn from the probe. They hope that data from the Parker Solar Probe will help them answer decades-old question about the Sun, its corona, and the solar wind.

Scientists who study the Sun have been anticipating this for a long time, and the waiting has been worth it.

“Heliophysicists have been waiting more than 60 years for a mission like this to be possible. The solar mysteries we want to solve are waiting in the corona.” – Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters.

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Astronomers Find One of the Sun’s Sibling Stars. Born From the Same Solar Nebula Billions of Years Ago

According to current cosmological theories, the Milky Way started to form approximately 13.5 billion years ago, just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. This began with globular clusters, which were made up of some of the oldest stars in the Universe, coming together to form a larger galaxy. Over time, the Milky Way cannibalized several smaller galaxies within its cosmic neighborhood, growing into the spiral galaxy we know today.

Many new stars formed as mergers added more clouds of dust and gas and caused them to undergo gravitational collapse. In fact, it is believed that our Sun was part of a cluster that formed 4.6 billion years ago and that its siblings have since been distributed across the galaxy. Luckily, an international team of astronomers recently used a novel method to locate one of the Sun’s long-lost “solar siblings“, which just happens to be an identical twin!

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Scientists are Using Artificial Intelligence to See Inside Stars Using Sound Waves

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory has captured images of a growing dark region on the surface of the Sun. Called a coronal hole, it produces high-speed solar winds that can disrupt satellite communications. Image: Solar Dynamics Observatory / NASA

How in the world could you possibly look inside a star? You could break out the scalpels and other tools of the surgical trade, but good luck getting within a few million kilometers of the surface before your skin melts off. The stars of our universe hide their secrets very well, but astronomers can outmatch their cleverness and have found ways to peer into their hearts using, of all things, sound waves. Continue reading “Scientists are Using Artificial Intelligence to See Inside Stars Using Sound Waves”

Parker Solar Probe Became the Closest Thing We’ve Ever Sent to the Sun. And it’s Just Getting Started.

An artist's illustration of the Parker Solar Probe approaching the Sun. Image: NASA

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.

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Here are the First Pictures From the Parker Solar Probe. Wait… That’s Not 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.

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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.

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Two Spacecraft Will Get Closer to the Sun Than Ever Before

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.”

Illustration of the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft approaching the Sun. Credits: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

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.

Artist’s impression of a solar flare erupting from the Sun’s surface. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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

Are We Headed Towards Another Deep Solar Minimum?

Solar SDO

Solar SDO
A (nearly) naked Sol… more the norm than the exception these days. Credit: NASA/SDO AIA 512/1600 imager.

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?

solar minimum
The story thus far… and the curious drama that is solar cycle #24. Credit: David Hathaway/NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center.

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.

partial solar eclipse
The partial eclipse of the Sun, October 23, 2014, as seen from Jasper, Alberta, shot under clear skies through a mylar filter, on the front of a 66mm f/6 apo refractor using the Canon 60Da for 1/8000 (!) sec exposure at ISO 100. The colors are natural, with the mylar filter providing a neutral “white light” image. The big sunspot on the Sun that day is just beginning to disappear behind the Moon’s limb. The mylar filter gave a white Sun, its natural colour, but I have tinted the Sun’s disk yellow for a more pleasing view that is not just white Sun/black sky. Image credit and copyright: Alan Dyer/Amazing Sky.net

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.

An animation of massive susnpot AR 2192 crossing the Earthward face of Sol from October 17th to October 29th, 2014. Credit: NASA/SDO.

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.

A guide to features on the Sun. The left view in Calcium-K shows the photosphere and is similar to a standard whitelight view, and the right view shows features in the chromosphere in hydrogen-alpha. Credit: Paul Stewart Instagram: @Upsidedownastronomer/annotations by Dave Dickinson

…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.

Solar scopes
Safe ways to observe the Sun: a homemade whitelight filter (left) and a Coronado PST solar telescope (right). Images by author.

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.

See for yourself. You can keep track of Sol’s daily activity online: our favorite sites are SpaceWeather, NOAA’s space weather/aurora activity page, and the SOHO and SDO websites.

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!