Flying Into the Sun? NASA’s Parker Solar Probe Mission

Into The Sun!


If you’ve read enough of our articles, you know I’ve got an uneasy alliance with the Sun. Sure, it provides the energy we need for all life on Earth. But, it’s a great big ongoing thermonuclear reaction, and it’s right there! As soon as we get fusion, Sun, in like, 30 years or so, I tell you, we’ll be the ones laughing.

But to be honest, we still have so many questions about the Sun. For starters, we don’t fully understand the solar wind blasting out of the Sun. This constant wind of charged particles is constantly blowing out into space, but sometimes it’s stronger, and sometimes it’s weaker.

What are the factors that contribute to the solar wind? And as you know, these charged particles are not healthy for the human body, or for our precious electronics. In fact, the Sun occasionally releases enormous blasts that can damage our satellites and electrical grids.

How can we predict the intensity so that we can be better prepared for dangerous solar storms? Especially the Carrington-class events that might take down huge portions of our modern society.

Perhaps the biggest mystery with the Sun is the temperature of its corona. The surface of the Sun is hot, like 5,500 degrees Celsius. But if you rise up into the atmosphere of the Sun, into its corona, the temperature jumps beyond a million degrees.

The list of mysteries is long. And to start understanding what’s going on, we’ll need to get much much closer to the Sun.

Good news, NASA has a new mission in the works to do just that.

The Parker Solar Probe logo. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL

The mission is called the Parker Solar Probe. Actually, last week, it was called the Solar Probe Plus, but then NASA renamed it, and that reminded me to do a video on it.

It’s pretty normal for NASA to rename their spacecraft, usually after a dead astronomer/space scientist, like Kepler, Chandra, etc. This time, though, they renamed it for a legendary solar astronomer Eugene Parker, who developed much of our modern thinking on the Sun’s solar wind. Parker just turned 90 and this is the first time NASA has named it after someone living.

Anyway, back to the spacecraft.

The mission is due to launch in early August 2018 on a Delta IV Heavy, so we’re still more than a year away at this point. When it does, it’ll carry the spacecraft on a very unusual trajectory through the inner Solar System.

The problem is that the Sun is actually a very difficult place to reach. In fact, it’s the hardest place to get to in the entire Solar System.

Remember that the Earth is traveling around the Sun at a velocity of 30 km/s. That’s almost three times the velocity it takes to get into orbit. That’s a lot of velocity.

In order to be able to get anywhere near the Sun, the probe needs to shed velocity. And in order to do this, it’s going to use gravitational slingshots with Venus. We’ve talked about gravitational slingshots in the past, and how you can use them to speed up a spacecraft, but you can actually do the reverse.

The Parker Solar Probe will fall down into Venus’ gravity well, and give orbital velocity to Venus. This will put it on a new trajectory which takes it closer to the Sun. It’ll do a total of 7 flybys in 7 years, each of which will tweak its trajectory and shed some of that orbital momentum.

Parker Solar Probe's trajectory including Venus flybys. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL
Parker Solar Probe’s trajectory including Venus flybys. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL

You know, trying to explain orbital maneuvering is tough. I highly recommend that you try out Kerbal Space Program. I’ve learned more about orbital mechanics by playing that game for a few months than I have in almost 2 decades of space journalism. Go ahead, try to get to the Sun, I challenge you.

Anyway, with each Venus flyby, the Parker Solar Probe will get closer and closer to the Sun, well within the orbit of Mercury. Far closer than any spacecraft has ever gotten to the Sun. At its closest point, it’ll only be 5.9 million kilometers from the Sun. Just for comparison, the Earth orbits at an average distance of about 150 million kilometers. That’s close.

And over the course of its entire mission, the spacecraft is expected to make a total of 24 complete orbits of the Sun, analyzing that plasma ball from every angle.

The orbit is also highly elliptical, which means that it’s going really really fast at its closest point. Almost 725,000 km/h.

In order to withstand the intense temperatures of being this close to the Sun, NASA has engineered the Parker Solar Probe to shed heat. It’s equipped with an 11.5 cm-thick shield made of carbon-composite. For that short time it spends really close to the Sun, the spacecraft will keep the shield up, blocking that heat from reaching the rest of its instruments.

And it’s going to get hot. We’re talking about more than 1,300 degrees Celsius, which is about 475 times as much energy as a spacecraft receives here on Earth. In the outer Solar System, the problem is that there just isn’t enough energy to power solar panels. But where Parker is going, there’s just too much energy.

Now we’ve talked about the engineering difficulties of getting a spacecraft this close to the Sun, let’s talk about the science.

Coronal holes are regions in the sun’s atmosphere or corona where solar plasma can stream directly into space. Often a hole will a couple rotations, inciting repeat auroras approximately every 4 weeks. Credit: NASA

The biggest question astronomers are looking to solve is, how does the corona get so hot. The surface is 5,500 Celsius. As you get farther away from the Sun, you’d expect the temperature to go down. And it certainly does once you get as far as the orbit of the Earth.

But the Sun’s corona, or its outer atmosphere, extends millions of kilometers into space. You can see it during a solar eclipse as this faint glow around the Sun. Instead of dropping, the temperature rises to more than a million degrees.

What could be causing this? There are a couple of ideas. Plasma waves pushed off the Sun could bunch up and release their heat into the corona. You could also get the crisscrossing of magnetic field lines that create mini-flares within the corona, heating it up.

The second great mystery is the solar wind, the stream of charged protons and electrons coming from the Sun. Instead of a constant blowing wind, it can go faster or slower. And when the speed changes, the contents of the wind change too.

There’s the slow wind, that goes a mere 1.1 million km/h and seems to emanate from the Sun’s equatorial regions. And then the fast wind, which seems to be coming out of coronal holes, cooler parts in the Sun’s corona, and can be going at 2.7 million km/h.

Why does the solar wind speed change? Why does its consistency change?

Parker Solar Probe's instruments. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL
Parker Solar Probe’s instruments. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL

The Parker Solar Probe is equipped with four major instruments, each of which will gather data from the Sun and its environment.

The FIELDS experiment will measure the electric and magnetic fields and waves around the Sun. We know that much of the Sun’s behavior is driven by the complex interaction between charged plasma in the Sun. In fact, many physicists agree that magnetohydrodynamics is easily one of the most complicated fields you can get into.

Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun, or ISOIS (which I suspect needs a renaming) will measure the charged particles streaming off the Sun, during regular solar activity and during dangerous solar storms. Can we get any warning before these events occur, giving astronauts more time to protect themselves?

Wide-field Imager for Solar PRobe or WISPR is its telescope and camera. It’s going to be taking close up, high resolution images of the Sun and its corona that will blow our collective minds… I hope. I mean, if it’s just a bunch of interesting data and no pretty pictures, it’s going to be hard to make cool videos showcasing the results of the mission. You hear me NASA, we want pictures and videos. And science, sure.

And then the Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons Investigation, or SWEAP, will measure type, velocity, temperature and density of particles around the Sun, to help us understand the environment around it.

One interesting side note, the spacecraft will be carrying a tiny chip on board with photos of Eugene Parker and a copy of his original 1958 paper explaining the Sun’s solar wind.

The Parker Solar Probe orbiting the Sun. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL
The Parker Solar Probe orbiting the Sun. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL

I know we’re still more than a year away from liftoff, and several years away before the science data starts pouring in. But you’ll be hearing more and more about this mission shortly, and I’m pretty excited about what it’s going to accomplish. So stay tuned, and once the science comes in, I’m sure you’ll hear plenty more about it.

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

What Was the Carrington Event?

What Was The Carrington Event?

Isn’t modern society great? With all this technology surrounding us in all directions. It’s like a cocoon of sweet, fluffy silicon. There are chips in my fitness tracker, my bluetooth headset, mobile phone, car keys and that’s just on my body.

At all times in the Cain household, there dozens of internet devices connected to my wifi router. I’m not sure how we got to the point, but there’s one thing I know for sure, more is better. If I could use two smartphones at the same time, I totally would.

And I’m sure you agree, that without all this technology, life would be a pale shadow of its current glory. Without these devices, we’d have to actually interact with each other. Maybe enjoy the beauty of nature, or something boring like that.

It turns out, that terrible burning orb in the sky, the Sun, is fully willing and capable of bricking our precious technology. It’s done so in the past, and it’s likely to take a swipe at us in the future.

I’m talking about solar storms, of course, tremendous blasts of particles and radiation from the Sun which can interact with the Earth’s magnetosphere and overwhelm anything with a wire.

Credit: NASA

In fact, we got a sneak preview of this back in 1859, when a massive solar storm engulfed the Earth and ruined our old timey technology. It was known as the Carrington Event.

Follow your imagination back to Thursday, September 1st, 1859. This was squarely in the middle of the Victorian age.

And not the awesome, fictional Steampunk Victorian age where spectacled gentleman and ladies of adventure plied the skies in their steam-powered brass dirigibles.

No, it was the regular crappy Victorian age of cholera and child labor. Technology was making huge leaps and bounds, however, and the first telegraph lines and electrical grids were getting laid down.

Imagine a really primitive version of today’s electrical grid and internet.

On that fateful morning, the British astronomer Richard Carrington turned his solar telescope to the Sun, and was amazed at the huge sunspot complex staring back at him. So impressed that he drew this picture of it.

Richard Carrington’s sketch of the sunspots seen just before the 1859 Carrington event.

While he was observing the sunspot, Carrington noticed it flash brightly, right in his telescope, becoming a large kidney-shaped bright white flare.

Carrington realized he was seeing unprecedented activity on the surface of the Sun. Within a minute, the activity died down and faded away.

And then about 5 minutes later. Aurora activity erupted across the entire planet. We’re not talking about those rare Northern Lights enjoyed by the Alaskans, Canadians and Northern Europeans in the audience. We’re talking about everyone, everywhere on Earth. Even in the tropics.

In fact, the brilliant auroras were so bright you could read a book to them.

The beautiful night time auroras was just one effect from the monster solar flare. The other impact was that telegraph lines and electrical grids were overwhelmed by the electricity pushed through their wires. Operators got electrical shocks from their telegraph machines, and the telegraph paper lit on fire.

What happened? The most powerful solar flare ever observed is what happened.

In this image, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) captured an X1.2 class solar flare, peaking on May 15, 2013. Credit: NASA/SDO

A solar flare occurs because the Sun’s magnetic field lines can get tangled up in the solar atmosphere. In a moment, the magnetic fields reorganize themselves, and a huge wave of particles and radiation is released.

Flares happen in three stages. First, you get the precursor stage, with a blast of soft X-ray radiation. This is followed by the impulsive stage, where protons and electrons are accelerated off the surface of the Sun. And finally, the decay stage, with another burp of X-rays as the flare dies down.

These stages can happen in just a few seconds or drag out over an hour.

Remember those particles hurled off into space? They take several hours or a few days to reach Earth and interact with our planet’s protective magnetosphere, and then we get to see beautiful auroras in the sky.

This geomagnetic storm causes the Earth’s magnetosphere to jiggle around, which drives charges through wires back and forth, burning out circuits, killing satellites, overloading electrical grids.

Back in 1859, this wasn’t a huge deal, when our quaint technology hadn’t progressed beyond the occasional telegraph tower.

Today, our entire civilization depends on wires. There are wires in the hundreds of satellites flying overhead that we depend on for communications and navigation. Our homes and businesses are connected by an enormous electrical grid. Airplanes, cars, smartphones, this camera I’m using.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Everything is electronic, or controlled by electronics.

Think it can’t happen? We got a sneak preview back in March, 1989 when a much smaller geomagnetic storm crashed into the Earth. People as far south as Florida and Cuba could see auroras in the sky, while North America’s entire interconnected electrical grid groaned under the strain.

The Canadian province of Quebec’s electrical grid wasn’t able to handle the load and went entirely offline. For 12 hours, in the freezing Quebec winter, almost the entire province was without power. I’m telling you, that place gets cold, so this was really bad timing.

Satellites went offline, including NASA’s TDRS-1 communication satellite, which suffered 250 separate glitches during the storm.

And on July 23, 2012, a Carrington-class solar superstorm blasted off the Sun, and off into space. Fortunately, it missed the Earth, and we were spared the mayhem.

If a solar storm of that magnitude did strike the Earth, the cleanup might cost $2 trillion, according to a study by the National Academy of Sciences.

The July 23, 2012 CME would have caused a Carrington-like event had it hit Earth. Thankfully for us and our technology, it missed. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

It’s been 160 years since the Carrington Event, and according to ice core samples, this was the most powerful solar flare over the last 500 years or so. Solar astronomers estimate solar storms like this happen twice a millennium, which means we’re not likely to experience another one in our lifetimes.

But if we do, it’ll cause worldwide destruction of technology and anyone reliant on it. You might want to have a contingency plan with some topic starters when you can’t access the internet for a few days. Locate nearby interesting nature spots to explore and enjoy while you wait for our technological civilization to be rebuilt.

Have you ever seen an aurora in your lifetime? Give me the details of your experience in the comments.

How Can You see the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights have fascinated human beings for millennia. In fact, their existence has informed the mythology of many cultures, including the Inuit, Northern Cree, and ancient Norse. They were also a source of intense fascination for the ancient Greeks and Romans, and were seen as a sign from God by medieval Europeans.

Thanks to the birth of modern astronomy, we now know what causes both the Aurora Borealis and its southern sibling – Aurora Australis. Nevertheless, they remain the subject of intense fascination, scientific research, and are a major tourist draw. For those who live north of 60° latitude, this fantastic light show is also a regular occurrence.

Causes:

Aurora Borealis (and Australis) is caused by interactions between energetic particles from the Sun and the Earth’s magnetic field. The invisible field lines of Earth’s magnetoshere travel from the Earth’s northern magnetic pole to its southern magnetic pole. When charged particles reach the magnetic field, they are deflected, creating a “bow shock” (so-named because of its apparent shape) around Earth.

However, Earth’s magnetic field is weaker at the poles, and some particles are therefore able to enter the Earth’s atmosphere and collide with gas particles in these regions. These collisions emit light that we perceive as wavy and dancing, and are generally a pale, yellowish-green in color.

The variations in color are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding. The common yellowish-green is produced by oxygen molecules located about 100 km (60 miles) above the Earth, whereas high-altitude oxygen – at heights of up to 320 km (200 miles) – produce all-red auroras. Meanwhile, interactions between charged particles and nitrogen will produces blue or purplish-red auroras.

Variability:

The visibility of the northern (and southern) lights depends on a lot of factors, much like any other type of meteorological activity. Though they are generally visible in the far northern and southern regions of the globe, there have been instances in the past where the lights were visible as close to the equator as Mexico.

In places like Alaska, Norther Canada, Norway and Siberia, the northern lights are often seen every night of the week in the winter. Though they occur year-round, they are only visible when it is rather dark out. Hence why they are more discernible during the months where the nights are longer.

The magnetic field and electric currents in and around Earth generate complex forces that have immeasurable impact on every day life. The field can be thought of as a huge bubble, protecting us from cosmic radiation and charged particles that bombard Earth in solar winds. It’s shaped by winds of particles blowing from the sun called the solar wind, the reason it’s flattened on the “sun-side” and swept out into a long tail on the opposite side of the Earth. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
The magnetic field and electric currents in and around Earth generate complex forces, and also lead to the phenomena known as aurorae. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Because they depend on the solar wind, auroras are more plentiful during peak periods of activity in the Solar Cycle. This cycle takes places every 11 years, and is marked by the increase and decrease of sunspots on the sun’s surface. The greatest number of sunspots in any given solar cycle is designated as a “Solar Maximum“, whereas the lowest number is a “Solar Minimum.”

A Solar Maximum also accords with bright regions appearing in the Sun’s corona, which are rooted in the lower sunspots. Scientists track these active regions since they are often the origin of eruptions on the Sun, such as solar flares or coronal mass ejections.

The most recent solar minimum occurred in 2008. As of January 2010, the Sun’s surface began to increase in activity, which began with the release of a lower-intensity M-class flare. The Sun continued to get more active, culminating in a Solar Maximum by the summer of 2013.

Locations for Viewing:

The ideal places to view the Northern Lights are naturally located in geographical regions north of 60° latitude.  These include northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, Alaska, and Northern Russia. Many organizations maintain websites dedicated to tracking optimal viewing conditions.

The camera recorded pale purple and red but the primary color visible to the eye was green. Credit: Bob Kin
An image captured of the northern lights, which appear pale purple and red, though the primary color visible to the eye was green. Credit: Bob Kin

For instance, the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks maintains the Aurora Forecast. This site is regularly updated to let residents know when auroral activity is high, and how far south it will extend. Typically, residents who live in central or northern Alaska (from Fairbanks to Barrow) have a better chance than those living in the south (Anchorage to Juneau).

In Northern Canada, auroras are often spotted from the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Northern Quebec. However, they are sometimes seen from locations like Dawson Creek, BC; Fort McMurry, Alberta; northern Saskatchewan and the town of Moose Factory by James Bay, Ontario. For information, check out Canadian Geographic Magazine’s “Northern Lights Across Canada“.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency also provides 30 minute forecasts on auroras through their Space Weather Prediction Center. And then there’s Aurora Alert, an Android App that allows you to get regular updates on when and where an aurora will be visible in your region.

Understanding the scientific cause of auroras has not made them any less awe-inspiring or wondrous. Every year, countless people venture to locations where they can be seen. And for those serving aboard the ISS, they got the best seat in the house!

Speaking of which, be sure to check out this stunning NASA video which shows the Northern Lights being viewed from the ISS:

We have written many interesting articles about Auroras here at Universe Today. Here’s The Northern and Southern Lights – What is an Aurora?, What is the Aurora Borealis?, What is the Aurora Australis?, What Causes the Northern Lights?, How Does the Aurora Borealis Form?, and Watch Fast and Furious All-sky Aurora Filmed in Real Time.

For more information, visit the THEMIS website – a NASA mission that is currently studying space weather in great detail. The Space Weather Center has information on the solar wind and how it causes aurorae.

Astronomy Cast also has episodes on the subject, like Episode 42: Magnetism Everywhere.

Sources:

Space Weather Causing Martian Atmospherics

A curious plume-like feature was observed on Mars on 17 May 1997 by the Hubble Space Telescope. It is similar to the features detected by amateur astronomers in 2012, although appeared in a different location. Credit: JPL/NASA/STScI
A curious plume-like feature was observed on Mars on May 17, 1997 by the Hubble Space Telescope. It is similar to the features detected by amateur astronomers in 2012, although appeared in a different location. Credit: JPL/NASA/STScI

Strange plumes in Mars’ atmosphere first recorded by amateur astronomers four year ago have planetary scientists still scratching their heads. But new data from European Space Agency’s orbiting Mars Express points to coronal mass ejections from the Sun as the culprit.

Mystery plume in Mars’ southern hemisphere photographed by amateur astronomer Wayne Jaeschke on March 20, 2012. The feature extended between 310-620 miles and lasted for about 10 days.
Mystery plume in Mars’ southern hemisphere photographed and animated by amateur astronomer Wayne Jaeschke on March 20, 2012. The feature lasted for about 10 days. Credit: Wayne Jaeschke

On two occasions in 2012 amateurs photographed cloud-like features rising to altitudes of over 155 miles (250 km) above the same region of Mars. By comparison, similar features seen in the past haven’t exceeded 62 miles (100 km). On March 20th of that year, the cloud developed in less than 10 hours, covered an area of up to 620 x 310 miles (1000 x 500 kilometers), and remained visible for around 10 days.

Back then astronomers hypothesized that ice crystals or even dust whirled high into the Martian atmosphere by seasonal winds might be the cause. However, the extreme altitude is far higher than where typical clouds of frozen carbon dioxide and water are thought to be able to form.

Indeed at those altitudes, we’ve entered Mars’ ionosphere, a rarified region where what air there is has been ionized by solar radiation. At Earth, charged particles from the Sun follow the planet’s global magnetic lines of force into the upper atmosphere to spark the aurora borealis. Might the strange features observed be Martian auroras linked to regions on the surface with stronger-than-usual magnetic fields?

Mars has magnetized rocks in its crust that create localized, patchy magnetic fields (left). In the illustration at right, we see how those fields extend into space above the rocks. At their tops, auroras can form. Credit: NASA
Mars has magnetized rocks in its crust that create localized, patchy magnetic fields (left). In the illustration at right, we see how those fields extend into space above the rocks. At their tops, auroras can form. Credit: NASA

Once upon a very long time ago, Mars may have had a global magnetic field generated by electrical currents in a liquid iron-nickel core much like the Earth’s does today. In the current era, the Red Planet has only residual fields centered over regions of magnetic rocks in its crust.

Copyright: W. Jaeschke and D. Parker The top image shows the location of the mysterious plume on Mars, identified within the yellow circle (top image, south is up), along with different views of the changing plume morphology taken by W. Jaeschke and D. Parker on 21 March 21 2012.
The top image shows the location of the mysterious plume on Mars, identified within the yellow circle (top image, south is up), along with different views of the changing plume morphology on March 21, 2012. Copyright: W. Jaeschke and D. Parker

Instead of a single, planet-wide field that funnels particles from the Sun into the atmosphere to generate auroras, Mars is peppered with pockets of magnetism, each potentially capable of connecting with the wind of particles from the Sun to spark a modest display of the “northern lights.” Auroras were first discovered on Mars in 2004 by the Mars Express orbiter, but they’re faint compared to the plumes, which were too bright to be considered auroras.

Still, this was a step in the right direction. What was needed was some hard data of a possible Sun-Earth interaction which scientists ultimately found when they looked into plasma and solar wind measurements collected by Mars Express at the time. David Andrews of the Swedish Institute of Space Physics, lead author of a recent paper reporting the Mars Express results, found evidence for a large coronal mass ejection or CME from the Sun striking the martian atmosphere in the right place and at around the right time.

Examples of Earth-based observations of the mysterious plume seen on 21 March 2012 (top right) and of Mars Express solar wind observations during March and April 2012 (bottom right).
Earth-based observations of the plume on March 21, 2012 (top right) and of Mars Express solar wind observations during March and April 2012 (bottom right). The left-hand graphics show Mars as seen by Mars Express. Green represents the planet’s dayside and gray, the nightside. Magnetic areas of the crust are shown in blue and red. The white box indicates the area in which the plume observations were made. Together, these graphics show that the amateur observations were made during the martian daytime, along the dawn terminator, while the spacecraft observations were made along the dusk terminator, approximately half a martian ‘day’ later.The black line on Mars is the ground track of the Mars Express orbiter. The plot on the lower right shows Mars Express’s solar wind measurements. The peaks marked by the horizontal blue line indicate the increase in the solar wind properties as a result of the impact of the coronal mass ejection. Credit: Copyright: visual images: D. Parker (large Mars image and bottom inset) & W. Jaeschke (top inset). All other graphics courtesy D. Andrews

CMEs are enormous explosions of hot solar plasma — a soup of electrons and protons — entwined with magnetic fields that blast off the Sun and can touch off geomagnetic storms and auroras when they encounter the Earth and other planets.

“Our plasma observations tell us that there was a space weather event large enough to impact Mars and increase the escape of plasma from the planet’s atmosphere,” said Andrews. Indeed, the plume was seen along the day–night boundary, over a region of known strong crustal magnetic fields.

Locations of 19 auroral detections (white circles) made by the SPICAM instrument on Mars Express during 113 nightside orbits between 2004 and 2014, over locations already known to be associated with residual crustal magnetism. The data is superimposed on the magnetic field line structure (from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor) where red indicates closed magnetic field lines, grading through yellow, green and blue to open field lines in purple. The auroral emissions are very short-lived, they are not seen to repeat in the same locations, and only occur near the boundary between open and closed magnetic field lines. Credit: ESA / Copyright Based on data from J-C. Gérard et al (2015)
Locations of 19 auroral detections (white circles) made by Mars Express during 113 nightside orbits between 2004 and 2014, over locations already known to be associated with residual crustal magnetism. The data is superimposed on the magnetic field line structure (from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor) where red indicates closed magnetic field lines, grading through yellow, green and blue to open field lines in purple. The auroral emissions are very short-lived, they are not seen to repeat in the same locations. Credit: ESA / Copyright Based on data from J-C. Gérard et al (2015)

But again, a Mars aurora wouldn’t be expected to shine so brightly. That’s why Andrews thinks that the CME prompted a disturbance in the ionosphere large enough to affect dust and ice grains below:

“One idea is that a fast-traveling CME causes a significant perturbation in the ionosphere resulting in dust and ice grains residing at high altitudes in the upper atmosphere being pushed around by the ionospheric plasma and magnetic fields, and then lofted to even higher altitudes by electrical charging,” according to Andrews.

A colossal CME departs the Sun in February 2000. erupting filament lifted off the active solar surface and blasted this enormous bubble of magnetic plasma into space. Credit NASA/ESA/SOHO
A colossal CME, composed of a magnetized cloud of subatomic particles, departs the Sun in February 2000. Credit NASA/ESA/SOHO

With enough dust and ice twinkling high above the planet’s surface, it might be possible for observers on Earth to see the result as a wispy plume of light. Plumes appear to be rare on Mars as a search through the archives has revealed. The only other, seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in May 1997, occurred when a CME was hitting the Earth at the same time. Unfortunately, there’s no information from Mars orbiters at the time about its effect on that planet.

Observers on Earth and orbiters zipping around the Red Planet continue to monitor Mars for recurrences. Scientists also plan to use the webcam on Mars Express for more frequent coverage. Like a dog with a bone, once scientists get a bite on a tasty mystery, they won’t be letting go anytime soon.

New Mission: DSCOVR Satellite will Monitor the Solar Wind

Solar wind – that is, the stream of charged electrons and protons that are released from the upper atmosphere of the Sun – is a constant in our Solar System and generally not a concern for us Earthlings. However, on occasion a solar wind shock wave or Coronal Mass Ejection can occur, disrupting satellites, electronics systems, and even sending harmful radiation to the surface.

Little wonder then why NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have made a point of keeping satellites in orbit that can maintain real-time monitoring capabilities. The newest mission, the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) is expected to launch later this month.

A collaborative effort between NASA, the NOAA, and the US Air Force, the DSCOVR mission was originally proposed in 1998 as a way of providing near-continuous monitoring of Earth. However, the $100 million satellite has since been re-purposed as a solar observatory.

In this capacity, it will provide support to the National Weather Service’s Space Weather Prediction Center, which is charged with providing advanced warning forecasts of approaching geomagnetic storms for people here on Earth.

Illustration showing the DSCOVR satellite in orbit L1 orbit, located one million miles away from Earth. At this location, the satellite will be in the best position to monitor the constant stream of particles from the sun, known as solar wind, and provide warnings of approaching geomagnetic storms caused by solar wind about an hour before they reach Earth. Credit: NOAA
Illustration showing the DSCOVR satellite in L1 orbit, located 1.5 million km  (930,000 mi) away from Earth. Credit: NOAA

These storms, which are caused by large-scale fluctuations in solar wind, have the potential of disrupting radio signals and electronic systems, which means that everything from telecommunications, aviation, GPS systems, power grids, and every other major bit of infrastructure is vulnerable to them.

In fact, a report made by the National Research Council estimated that recovering from the most extreme geomagnetic storms could take up to a decade, and cost taxpayers in the vicinity of $1 to $2 trillion dollars. Add to the that the potential for radiation poisoning to human beings (at ground level and in orbit), as well as flora and fauna, and the need for alerts becomes clear.

Originally, the satellite was scheduled to be launched into space on Jan. 23rd from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. However, delays in the latest resupply mission to the International Space Station have apparently pushed the date of this launch back as well.

According to a source who spoke to SpaceNews, the delay of the ISS resupply mission caused scheduling pressure, as both launches are being serviced by SpaceX from Cape Canaveral. However, the same source indicated that there are no technical problems with the satellite or the Falcon 9 that will be carrying it into orbit. It is now expected to be launched on Jan. 29th at the latest.

Credit: NOAA
SpaceX will be providing the launch service for DSCOVR, which is now expected to be launched by the end of Jan aboard a Falcon 9 rocket (pictured here). Credit: NOAA

Once deployed, DSCOVR will eventually take over from NASA’s aging Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite, which has been in providing solar wind alerts since 1997 and is expected to remain in operation until 2024. Like ACE, the DSCOVER will orbit Earth at Lagrange 1 Point (L1), the neutral gravity point between the Earth and sun approximately 1.5 million km (930,000 mi) from Earth.

From this position, DSCOVR will be able to provide advanced warning, roughly 15 to 60 minutes before a solar wind shockwave or CME reaches Earth. This information will be essential to emergency preparedness efforts, and the data provided will also help improve predictions as to where a geomagnetic storm will impact the most.

These sorts of warnings are essential to maintaining the safety and integrity of infrastructure, but also the health and well-being of people here on Earth. Given our dependence on high-tech navigation systems, electricity, the internet, and telecommunications, a massive geomagnetic storm is not something we want to get caught off guard by!

And be sure to check out this video of the DSCOVR mission, courtesy of the NOAA:

Further Reading: NOAA

Beastly Sunspot Amazes, Heightens Eclipse Excitement

That’s one big, black blemish on the Sun today! Rarely have we been witness to such an enormous sunspot. Lifting the #14 welder’s glass to my eyes this morning I about jumped back and bumped into the garage.

Properly shielded, it was very easy to see with the naked eye. Unlike some other naked eye sunspots, this one showed structure. The eastern end was darker, the western half grayer and more extended.


Watch the giant spot rotate into view and grow right before your eyes in this 72-hour time-lapse video taken by SOHO’s HMI imager Oct. 18-20, 2014

Through a small telescope, the mix of dark umbras scattered amid weirdly sculpted penumbral “islands” was incredible to see. Photographs like the one above are wonderful documents, but witnessing this beautiful complex magnetic mess with your own eyes is another experience altogether. Region 2192 continues to grow and size and complexity and is now the largest sunspot group of solar cycle 24 which began in 2009 – more than five years ago!

Active region 2192 is now the largest sunspot group to appear in over five years. Credit: Alex Young
Active region 2192 is now the largest sunspot group to appear in over five years. Compare to Jupiter and the Earth. Credit: SDO/HMI/Alex Young

Every sunspot marks a region on the Sun’s shiny outer skin called the photosphere where magnetic energy is concentrated. Strong magnetic fields within a sunspot group quell the turbulent churning of the photosphere, chilling the region by several thousand degrees. Sunspots appear dark against the Sun’s blazing disk because they’re cooler. Cooler meaning 8,000 F instead of 11,000 F, so yes, they’re still VERY hot.


Watch as Region 2192 crackles with energy and flares as seen in far ultraviolet light with NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Energy stored in sunspots’ twisted magnetic fields can suddenly be released in violent, explosions called solar flares. Billions of tons of solar plasma – the sizzling mix of protons and electrons that composes the Sun – are heated to millions of degrees during the explosion and rapidly accelerated into space. Radiation from radio waves to X-rays and gamma rays fans out at the speed of light. Fortunately for us, our atmosphere and planetary magnetic field protect us from most of what flares can fling our way.

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory took this photo of the sun and Jupiter-sized sunspot 2192 this morning Oct. 22 at 8:45 a.m. CDT. The view in a small telescope equipped with a safe solar filter is even better! Credit: NASA
NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory took this photo of the Sun and Jupiter-sized sunspot region 2192 this morning Oct. 22 at 8:45 a.m. CDT. The view in a small telescope equipped with a safe solar filter is even better! Credit: NASA

But as the Sun rotates this monster into our line of sight, possibilities for Earth-directed flares and coronal mass ejections increase as do geomagnetic storms, the bringer of auroras. Already in the past 48 hours, the spot has dished out seven M-class flares and a powerful X-1 flare even before it has fully come into view.  There’s more to come – Region 2192 harbors an unstable beta-gamma-delta magnetic field ripe for additional flaring including more of the X-class variety.

The sun on October 21 showing smaller sunspot regions along with our featured group. Credit: Sarah and Simon Fisher
The Sun on October 21 showing smaller sunspot regions along with our featured group. Credit: Sarah and Simon Fisher

There’s no doubt now that this behemoth will stick around to add a whole new dimension to tomorrow’s partial solar eclipse. I can’t wait to see the Moon’s black curve approach and at least partially occult the group from view. If you’re interested in getting some one-of-a-kind pictures of the scene, please see our own Dave Dickinson’s excellent guide on photographing the partial eclipse.

A sliver of a Moon rises in morning twilight today October 22 just a day away from its appointment with the Sun. Credit: Bob King
A sliver of a Moon rises in morning twilight today October 22 just a day away from its appointment with the Sun. Credit: Bob King

While we’re on the Moon, early morning risers had the pleasure of its company just one day before New Moon and solar eclipse. I was out watching the Orionid meteor shower. While not rich like the Perseids or Geminids I managed to catch a few including a few lucky shots with the camera.

An Orionid meteor slashes across the top of the frame directly above the constellation Orion early this morning October 22, 2014. Details: 24mm lens, f/2.8, 30-seconds at ISO 1600. Credit: Bob King
An Orionid meteor slashes across the top of the frame directly above the constellation Orion early this morning October 22, 2014. Details: 24mm lens, f/2.8, 30-seconds at ISO 1600. Credit: Bob King

The shower has peaked but will still be active the remainder of the week if you’re inclined to take a look. And I can’t resist. How about one last sweet close-up photo of sunspot group 2192? I have a feeling you won’t mind.

Monster Sunspot AR12192 taken by Karzaman Ahmad on October 21, 2014 from Langkawi Nagtional Observatory, Malaysia credit: Karzaman Ahmad and shared at spaceweather.com
Monster Sunspot AR12192 taken by Karzaman Ahmad on October 21, 2014, from Langkawi Nagtional Observatory, Malaysia. Credit: Karzaman Ahmad and shared at spaceweather.com. Click the image to see additional animations and photos on Alex Young’s site

Solar ‘Bombs’ And Mini-Tornadoes Spotted By Sun-Watching Spacecraft

My, the Sun is a violent place. I mean, we knew that already, but there’s even more evidence for that using new data from a brand-new NASA spacecraft. There’s talk now about tornadoes and jets and even “bombs” swirling amid our Sun’s gassy environment.

A huge set of results from NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) spacecraft reveals the true nature of a mysterious transition zone between Sun’s surface and the corona, or atmosphere. Besides the pretty fireworks and videos, these phenomena are telling scientists more about how the Sun moves energy from the center to the outskirts. And, it could tell us more about how stars work in general.

The results are published in five papers yesterday (Oct. 15) in Science magazine. Below, a brief glimpse of what each of these papers revealed about our closest star.

Bombs

This is a heck of a lot of energy packed in here. Raging at temperatures of 200,000 degrees Fahrenheit (111,093 degrees Celsius) are heat “pockets” — also called “bombs” because they release energy quickly. They were found lower in the atmosphere than expected. The paper is here (led by Hardi Peter of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany.)

Tornadoes

It’s a twist! You can see some structures in the chromosphere, just above the Sun’s surface, showing gas spinning like a tornado. They spin around as fast as 12 miles (19 kilometers) a second, which is considered slow-moving on the Sun. The paper is here (led by Bart De Pontieu, the IRIS science lead at Lockheed Martin in California).

High-speed jets

Artist's impression of the solar wind from the sun (left) interacting with Earth's magnetosphere (right). Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of the solar wind from the sun (left) interacting with Earth’s magnetosphere (right). Credit: NASA

How does the solar wind — that constant stream of charged particles that sometimes cause aurora on Earth — come to be? IRIS spotted high-speed jets of material moving faster than ever observed, 90 miles (145 kilometers) a second. Since these jets are emerging in spots where the magnetic field is weaker (called coronal holes), scientists suspect this could be a source of the solar wind since the particles are thought to originate from there. The paper is here (led by Hui Tian at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts.)

Nanoflares

A solar filament erupts with a coronal mass ejection in this image captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory in August 2012. Credit: NASA's GSFC, SDO AIA Team
A solar filament erupts with a coronal mass ejection in this image captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory in August 2012. Credit: NASA’s GSFC, SDO AIA Team

Those solar flares the Sun throws off happen when magnetic field lines cross and then snap back into place, flinging particles into space. Nanoflares could do the same thing to heat up the corona, and that’s something else that IRIS is examining. The paper is here (led by Paola Testa, at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.)

Structures and more

And here is the transition region in glorious high-definition. Improving on data from the Skylab space station in the 1970s (bottom of video), you can see all sorts of mini-structures on the Sun. The more we learn about these 2,000-mile (3,220-km) objects, the better we’ll understand how heating moves through the Sun. The paper is here (led by Viggo Hansteen, at the University of Oslo in Norway.)

Source: NASA

NASA Explains: The Difference Between CMEs and Solar Flares

This is a question we are often asked: what is the difference between a coronal mass ejection (CME) and a solar flare? We discussed it in a recent astrophoto post, but today NASA put out a video with amazing graphics that explains it — and visualizes it — extremely well.

“CMEs and solar flares are both explosions that occur on the Sun,” the folks at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center’s Scientific Visualization Studio explain. “Sometimes they occur together, but they are not the same thing.”

CMEs are giant clouds of particles from the Sun hurled out into space, while flares are flashes of light — occurring in various wavelengths — on the Sun.

You can find even more details from NASA here.

Blast! Sun Pops Off A Moderate Solar Flare. Could Others Follow Soon?

With a watchful NASA spacecraft capturing its moves, the Sun sent off a “mid-level” solar flare on Tuesday (July 8) that you can watch (over and over again) in the video above. The Solar Dynamics Observatory caught the explosion around 12:20 p.m. EDT (4:20 p.m. UTC), which led into a coronal mass ejection that sent a surge of solar material into space.

Solar flares can be disruptive to Earth communications and also cause auroras in the atmosphere. In this case, the M6 solar flare created “short-lived impacts to high frequency radio communications on the sunlit side of Earth … as a result,” wrote the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in a forecast July 8.

In this case, however, the coronal mass ejection (seen by the Solar Dynamics Observatory) is not expected to hit Earth. But with the Sun around its maximum of solar activity in the 11-year cycle, other eruptions could head into space in the coming days. M is considered a moderate flare and X the strongest kind.

“Solar activity is low, but the quiet is unlikely to persist,” wrote SpaceWeather.com in an update published today (July 10). “There are three sunspots with unstable magnetic fields capable of strong eruptions: AR2108, AR2109, AR2113. NOAA forecasters estimate a 75% chance of M-flares and 15% chance of X-flares on July 10th.”

This flare caused a surge in shortwave activity that you can hear in this audio file, recorded by New Mexico amateur astronomer Thomas Ashcraft. “Radio bursts such as these are sparked by shock waves moving through the sun’s atmosphere,” SpaceWeather added. “Set in motion by flares, these shock waves excite plasma instabilitties that emit static-y radio waves.”