When will the next big solar flare occur? How much damage could it cause to power lines and satellites? These are important questions for those looking to protect our infrastructure, but there’s still a lot we need to figure out concerning space weather.
The video above, however, shows magnetic lines weaving together from the surface of the Sun in 2012, eventually creating an eruption that was 35 times our planet’s size and sending out a surge of energy. It’s these energetic flares that can hit Earth’s atmosphere and cause auroras and power surges.
While models of this have been made before, this is the first time the phenomenon was caught in action. Scientists saw it using NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.
Models of the flares show they typically occur amid distorted magnetic fields, the University of Cambridge noted, showing that the lines can “reconnect while slipping and flipping around each other.” Before the flare happens, the magnetic field lines line up in an arc across the sun’s surface (photosphere). That phenonemon is called field line footprints.
“In a smooth, non-entangled arc the magnetic energy levels are low, but entanglement will occur naturally as the footpoints move about each other,” the release added. “Their movement is caused as they are jostled from below by powerful convection currents rising and falling beneath the photosphere. As the movement continues, the entanglement of field lines causes magnetic energy to build up.”
When the energy gets to great, the lines let go of the energy, creating the solar flare and coronal mass ejection that can send material streaming away from the sun. A note, this observation was made of an X-class flare — the strongest kind of flare — and scientists say they are not sure if this phenomenon is true of all kinds of flares. That said, the phenomenon would be harder to spot in smaller flares.
You can read more about the research in the Astrophysical Journal or in preprint version on Arxiv. It was led by Jaroslav Dudik, a researcher at the University of Cambridge’s center for mathemetical sciences.
She’s a rainbow! You can see the first moments of a huge flare belching off the sun in the picture above. The so-called X-class flare erupted a few hours ago (at 7:25 p.m. EST Feb. 24, or 12:25 a.m. UTC Feb. 25) and was captured by several spacecraft. If you have a pictures of the sun yourself to share, feel free to post them in the Universe Today Flickr pool.
NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory saw the flare growing in at least six different wavelengths of light, which are visible in the image above. This is classified this as an X4.9-class flare, which shows that it is pretty strong. X-flares are the most powerful kind that the sun emits, and each X number is supposed to be twice as intense as the previous one (so an X-2 flare is twice as powerful as X-1, for example).
SpaceWeather.com says this is the most powerful flare of the year so far, emitted from sunspot AR1967 (or more properly speaking, AR1990; sunspots are renamed if they survive a full rotation of the sun, as this one has done twice already!) While solar flares can lead to auroras, in this case it appears the blast was pointed in the wrong direction, the site added.
“Although this flare is impressive, its effects are mitigated by the location of the blast site–near the sun’s southeastern limb, and not facing Earth,” SpaceWeather stated. “Indeed, a bright coronal mass ejection (CME) which raced away from the sun shortly after the flare appears set to miss our planet.”
The sun goes through an 11-year cycle of sunspot and solar activity, which is supposed to be at its peak right now. This particular peak has been very muted, but lately things have been picking up. The European Space Agency noted that between Feb. 18 and 20, the sun sent out six CMEs in three days, with most of them moving in different directions.
“This level of activity is consistent with what we might expect as the Sun is near its maximum period of activity in the 11-year solar cycle,” ESA stated.
Call it the eclipse nobody saw. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) got its own private solar eclipse showing from its geosynchronous orbital perch today. Twice a year during new phase, the moon glides in front of the sun from the observatory’s perspective. Although we can’t be there in person to see it, the remote view isn’t too shabby. The events are called lunar transits rather than eclipses since they’re seen from outer space. Transits typically last about a half hour, but at 2.5 hours, today’s was one of the longest ever recorded. The next one occurs on July 26, 2014.
Today’s lunar transit of the sun followed by a strong solar flare
When an eclipse ends, the fun is usually over, but not this time. Just as the moon slid off the sun’s fiery disk, a strong M6.6 solar flare exploded from within a new, very active sunspot group rounding the eastern limb and blasted a CME (coronal mass ejection) into space. What a show!
SDO circles Earth in a geosynchronous orbit about 22,000 miles high and photographs the sun continuously day and night from a vantage point high above Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. About 1.5 terabytes of solar data or the equivalent of half a million songs from iTunes are downloaded to antennas in White Sands, New Mexico every day.
For comparison, the space station, which orbits much closer to Earth, would make a poor solar observatory, since Earth blocks the sun for half of every 90 minute orbit.
When you look at the still pictures and video, notice how distinct the edge of the moon appears. With virtually no atmosphere, the moon takes a “sharp” bite out of the sun.
SDO amazes with its spectacular pictures of the sun taken in 10 different wavelengths of light every 10 seconds; additional instruments study vibrations on the sun’s surface, magnetic fields and how much UV radiation the sun pours into space.
Compared to all the hard science, the twice a year transits are a sweet side benefit much like the cherries topping a sundae.
You can make your own movie of today’s partial eclipse by visiting the SDO websiteand following these easy steps:
* Click on the Data tab and select AIA/HMI Browse Data
* Click on the Enter Start Date window, select a start date and time and click Done
* Click on Enter End Date and click Done
* Under Telescopes, pick the color (wavelength) sun you want
* Select View in the display box
* Click Submit at the bottom and watch a video of your selected pictures
But the remnants — or whatever ISON is now — kept brightening and brightening and brightening in images from the NASA/European Space Agency Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. The pictures are still puzzling astronomers right now, almost a day after ISON’s closest encounter with the sun.
You can follow our liveblogged confusion yesterday, capped by a gobsmacking announcement from the Naval Research Laboratory’s Karl Battams, “We believe some small part of ISON’s nucleus has SURVIVED perihelion,” he said on Twitter. Since then, Battams wrote a detailed blog post, referring to images from the Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph (LASCO) aboard SOHO:
“Matthew [Knight] and I are ripping our hair out right now as we know that so many people in the public, the media and in science teams want to know what’s happened. We’d love to know that too! Right now, here’s our working hypothesis: As comet ISON plunged towards to the Sun, it began to fall apart, losing not giant fragments but at least a lot of reasonably sized chunks. There’s evidence of very large dust in the form of that long thin tail we saw in the LASCO C2 images.
Then, as ISON plunged through the corona, it continued to fall apart and vaporize, and lost its coma and tail completely just like Lovejoy did in 2011. (We have our theories as to why it didn’t show up in the SDO images but that’s not our story to tell – the SDO team will do that.) Then, what emerged from the Sun was a small but perhaps somewhat coherent nucleus, that has resumed emitting dust and gas for at least the time being. In essence, the tail is growing back, as Lovejoy’s did.
So while our theory certainly has holes, right now it does appear that a least some small fraction of ISON has remained in one piece and is actively releasing material. We have no idea how big this nucleus is, if there is indeed one. If there is a nucleus, it is still too soon to tell how long it will survive. If it does survive for more than a few days, it is too soon to tell if the comet will be visible in the night sky. If it is visible in the night sky, it is too soon to say how bright it will be…
This morning (EST), Battams succinctly summarized the latest images he saw: “Based on a few more hours of data, comet #ISON appears to be… well, behaving like a comet!”, he wrote on Twitter.
NASA issued a status update this morning saying it’s unclear if this leftover is debris or an actual nucleus, but added that “late-night analysis from scientists with NASA’s Comet ISON Observing Campaign suggest that there is at least a small nucleus intact.” NASA, as well as Battams, pointed out that comet has behaved unpredictably throughout the 15 months scientists and amateurs have been observing it.
Throughout the year that researchers have watched Comet ISON – and especially during its final approach to the sun – the comet brightened and dimmed in unexpected ways. Such brightness changes usually occur in response to material boiling off the comet, and different material will do so at different temperatures thus providing clues as to what the comet is made of. Analyzing this pattern will help scientists understand the composition of ISON, which contains material assembled during the very formation of the solar system some 4.5 billion years ago.
Slate Bad Astronomy blogger Phil Plait jokingly threw out phrases like “What the what?” on Twitter yesterday, but added in a late-night update: “If you haven’t figured this out yet: We are *loving* this. The Universe surprises us yet again! How awesome!” He continued with his astonishment in a blog post:
For those keeping score at home, it got bright, then it faded, then it got all smeared out, then it came around the Sun smeared out, and then it seemed to get its act together again. At this point, I refuse to make any further conclusions about this comet; it seems eager to confuse. I’ve been hearing from comet specialists who are just as baffled… which is fantastic! If we knew what was going on, there’d be nothing more to learn.
From my initial look at ISON in today’s SOHO images, it seems nucleus has mostly disintegrated. Will only know if part of ISON nucleus has survived by continuing observations and performing more analysis. Bright fan-shape implies lots of material was released and travelling along ISON orbit, not confined in a traditional tail. Would be interesting to learn more about composition of debris to help us piece together what’s happened, but we need more time.
Update, 8:35 p.m. EST: Uncertainty about Comet ISON’s fate likely will persist for some time. Karl Battams just tweeted that after 2,000 sungrazing comet observations, he has never seen brightening in the same way that ISON (or its remains) appear to be doing right now. We’ll keep watching. Real-time images are available on this website.
Update, 6:30 p.m. EST: An excellent blog post from Phil Plait (who writes the Bad Astronomy blog on Slate) summarizes his take of the comet’s fate; debris (most likely, he says) continues to show up in images. An except: “It held together a long time, got very bright last night, faded this morning, then apparently fell apart. This isn’t surprising; we see comets disintegrate often enough as they round the Sun. ISON’s nucleus was only a couple of kilometers across at best, so it would have suffered under the Sun’s heat more than a bigger comet would have. Still, there’s more observing to do, and of course much data over which to pore.”
Update, 4:40 p.m. EST:On Twitter, the European Space Agency (quoting SOHO scientist Bernhard Fleck) said the comet is gone. Separately, the Naval Research Laboratory’s Karl Battams posted that he thinks recent observations show debris from ISON, but not a nucleus. Astronomers are still monitoring, however.
Update, 3:56 p.m. EST: Something has emerged from perihelion, but the experts are divided as to whether it’s leftovers of ISON’s tail, or the comet itself. Stay tuned.
The fate of Comet C/2012 S1 ISON is uncertain. It made its closest approach to the sun today (Nov. 28) around 1:44 p.m. EST (6:44 p.m. UTC). As of Thursday night, what’s happening to the comet is still unclear, as observers try to keep up hopes for a good comet show in the next few weeks.
It will take a few more hours until NASA and other agencies can say for sure what the comet’s fate is. That said, there still is valuable science that can be performed if ISON has broken up — more details below the jump.
ISON coincided with American Thanksgiving, causing a lot of astronomers and journalists to work holiday hours while pundits made jokes about the comet being “roasted” along with the turkey. Meanwhile, amateur astronomer Stuart Atkinson — author of the Waiting for ISON blog — was among those eagerly awaiting the comet’s closest approach.
But as the comet made its closest approach, astronomers grew more and more skeptical than it had survived. Phil Plait (who writes the Bad Astronomy blog on Slate) pointed out that the comet’s nucleus appeared much dimmer than its tail in images from SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory), NASA’s sun-gazing spacecraft. This implied that the nucleus was disintegrating.
Plait and Karl Battams — a Naval Research Laboratory astrophysicist who operates the Sungrazing Comets Project — both participated in a NASA Google+ Hangout on ISON. As of about 2 p.m. EST (7 p.m. UTC), both said that they believe ISON is an “ex-comet”, although it will be a few more hours before scientists can say for sure.
The challenge is that the two spacecraft used to watch ISON swing around the sun — the Solar Dynamics Observatory and SOHO — are not necessarily designed to look for comets. Battams and Plait initially said that it sometimes take additional image processing to view information in it. more As time elapsed though, both expressed extreme skepticism that the comet survived.
Even if the comet is dead, Plait pointed out that scientists can still learn a lot from the remaining debris. ISON is believed to be a pristine example of bodies in the Oort Cloud, a vast body of small objects beyond the orbit of Neptune. Examining the dust in its debris trail could tell scientists more about the origins of the solar system.
“The fact that it’s broken up is really cool. There’s a lot we can learn from it and a lot we can get from it,” he said.
Battams added that ISON has been a very unpredictable comet, flaring up when people expected it would fade, and vice versa. “ISON is just weird. It has behaved unpredictably at times. When it’s done something strange, we spent some time scratching our heads, figuring out what is going on and we think we know what it’s doing … it then goes and does something different.”
Amid the waiting came the inevitable social media jokes (including science fiction and fantasy references.)
For others, the comet served as an inspiration for daring to be courageous.
How does the sun’s energy flow? Despite the fact that we live relatively close (93 million miles, or eight light-minutes) to this star, and that we have several spacecraft peering at it, we still know little about how energy transfers through the solar atmosphere.
NASA’s next solar mission will launch Wednesday, June 26 (if all goes to plan) to try to learn a little bit more. It’s called the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), and it will zero in on a spot in the sun’s lower atmosphere known as the “interface region.” The zone only has a thickness of 3,000 to 6,000 miles and is seen as a key transfer point to the sun’s incredibly hot corona (that you can see during total solar eclipses.)
“IRIS will extend our observations of the sun to a region that has historically been difficult to study,” stated Joe Davila, IRIS project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “Understanding the interface region better improves our understanding of the whole corona and, in turn, how it affects the solar system.”
Figuring out more about the interface region, NASA stated, will teach us a lot more about the “space weather” that affects Earth.
Some of the energy in the interface region leaks out and powers the solar wind, which is a sort of rain of particles that leave the star. Some of them hit the Earth’s magnetic field and can produce auroras. Most of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation also flows from the interface region.
IRIS’ images will be able to zero in on about 1 percent of the sun in a single go, with resolution of features of as small as 150 miles. The 400-pound satellite will orbit Earth in an orbit perpetually keeping it above the sunrise line, a spot that lets the satellite look at the sun continuously for eight months without the sun being obscured by Earth.
It’ll also form part of a larger network of sun-staring satellites.
NASA highlighted its Solar Dynamics Observatory and a joint mission it has with Japan, called Hinode, which both take images of the sun in high-definition. These other two observatories, however, look at different solar layers (specifically, the surface and the outer atmosphere).
With IRIS joining the fleet and looking at the interface region, it will provide a more complete picture.
“Relating observations from IRIS to other solar observatories will open the door for crucial research into basic, unanswered questions about the corona,” stated Davila.
Last night, as Commander Hadfield and the Expedition 35 crew were returning to Earth in their Soyuz spacecraft, the Sun unleashed yet another X-class flare from active region 1748, the third and most powerful eruption yet from the sunspot region in the past 24 hours — in fact, at a level of X3.2, it was the most intense flare observed all year.
And with this dynamic sunspot region just now coming around the Sun’s limb and into view, we can likely expect much more of this sort of activity… along with a steadily increasing chance of an Earth-directed CME.
According to SpaceWeather.com AR1748 has produced “the strongest flares of the year so far, and they signal a significant increase in solar activity. NOAA forecasters estimate a 40% chance of more X-flares during the next 24 hours.”
(Find out more about the classification of solar flares here.)
The sunspot region just became fully visible to Earth during the early hours of May 13 (UT).
Sunspots are regions where the Sun’s internal magnetic fields rise up through its surface layers, preventing convection from taking place and creating cooler, optically darker areas. They often occur in pairs or clusters, with individual spots corresponding to the opposite polar ends of magnetic lines.
Sunspots may appear dark because they are relatively cooler than the surrounding area on the Sun’s photosphere, but in ultraviolet and x-ray wavelengths they are brilliantly white-hot. And although sunspots look small compared to the Sun, they are often many times larger than Earth.
According to SDO project scientists Dean Pesnell on the SDO is Go! blog, AR1748 is not only rapidly unleashing flares but also changing shape.
“The movies show that the sunspot is changing, the two small groups on the right merging and the elongated spot on the lower left expanding out to join them,” Pesnell wrote earlier today.
Of course, as a solar scientist Pesnell is likely much more excited about the chance to observe further high-intensity activity than he is concerned about any dramatically negative impacts of a solar storm here on Earth, which, although possible, are still statistically unlikely.
“Great times ahead for this active region!” he added enthusiastically.
If that title seems like an obvious statement to you, it’s ok… it seems pretty obvious to me too. But there are those who have been suggesting — for quite some time, actually — that earthquakes can be triggered or strengthened by solar activity; that, in fact, exceptionally powerful solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and other outpourings from our home star can cause the planet’s crust to shift, shake, and shudder.
Except that that’s simply not true — at least, not according to a recent study by researchers from the USGS.
“Recently there’s been a lot of interest in this subject from the popular press, probably because of a couple of larger and very devastating earthquakes. This motivated us to investigate for ourselves whether or not it was true.”
– Jeffrey Love, USGS Research Geophysicist
Even when an earthquake may have been found to occur on the same day as increased solar activity, at other times during even stronger quakes the Sun may have been relatively quiet, and vice versa.
“There have been some earthquakes like the 9.5 magnitude Chile quake in 1960 where, sure enough, there were more sunspots and more geomagnetic activity than on average,” said Dr. Love. “But then for the Alaska earthquake in 1964 everything was lower than normal. There’s no obvious pattern between solar activity and seismicity, so our results were inconclusive.”
Basically, even though our planet orbits within the Sun’s outer atmosphere and we are subject to the space weather it creates — and there’s still a lot to be learned about that — observations do not indicate any connection between sunspots, flares, and CMEs and the shifting of our planet’s crust (regardless of what some may like to suggest.)
“It’s natural for scientists to want to see relationships between things,” said Love. “Of course, that doesn’t mean that a relationship actually exists!”
The team’s findings were published in the March 16, 2013 online edition of Geophysical Research Letters.
Active Region 1654 on the Sun’s western limb, seen by SDO on Jan. 11 (NASA/SDO/HMI team. Diagram by J. Major.)
Like an enormous cannon that is slowly turning its barrel toward us, the latest giant sunspot region AR1654 is steadily moving into position to face Earth, loaded with plenty of magnetic energy to create M-class flares — moderate-sized outbursts of solar energy that have the potential to cause brief radio blackouts on Earth and, at the very least, spark bright aurorae around the upper latitudes.
According to SpaceWeather.com, AR1654 “could be the sunspot that breaks the recent lengthy spell of calm space weather around our planet.”
The image above, captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory earlier today, shows the structure of AR1654 upon the Sun’s photosphere — its light-emitting “surface” layer. Stretching many tens of thousands of miles, this magnetic solar blemish easily dwarfs our entire planet. And it’s not just a prediction that this sunspot will unleash a flare — it already has.
AR1654 came around the limb of the sun crackling with activity. Shortly after the probability of AR1654 releasing a flare was raised to 50% it did just that, letting loose with a burst of magnetic energy that was observed by SDO’s multi-channel cameras. Watch the video below:
Peaking at 9:11 UTC, this M1-class flare won’t have much more effect on Earth than perhaps some radio and GPS interference and maybe increased auroral activity. But AR1654 is still evolving and growing… and moving to face us.
In the meantime, solar astronomers and observatories like SDO are keeping an ever-watchful eye on this magnetic monster.
UPDATE 1/12: According to the NOAA, AR1654 has a 5% chance of producing an X-class flare, based on its current magnetic activity and alignment.
A sunspot is a magnetically active region on the sun that appears dark because it’s relatively cooler than the surrounding area—6,000ºF (3,300ºC) versus 10,000ºF (5,500º C). Sunspots are where solar flares are most likely to occur since the magnetic fields in these active regions can build up enough energy to break, releasing bursts of intense radiation into the solar system.
Remember that cool animation I posted earlier of AR1520 and how I said there’s no guarantee it wouldn’t unleash an X-class flare? Well at 16:48 UT today, it did. Just goes to show there’s no guarantees in space!
The X1.4-class flare will most likely affect Earth’s magnetic field as 1520 is directly facing us. Stay tuned for more!
Video & image: NASA/SDO and the AIA science team.
UPDATE: The CME associated with this flare is expected to impact Earth’s magnetosphere on Saturday between 3 and 5 p.m. EDT with “moderate to severe” activity possible. See an animated tracker here. (H/T to Francis Reddy at GSFC.) Also in the lineup for impact are MESSENGER and MSL.