The Solar Heliospheric Observatory at 20

Flashback to 1995: Clinton was in the White House, Star Trek Voyager premiered, we all carried pagers in the pre-mobile phone era, and Windows 95 and the Internet itself was shiny and new to most of us. It was also on this day in late 1995 when our premier eyes on the Sun—The SOlar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO)—was launched. A joint mission between NASA and the European Space Agency, SOHO lit up the pre-dawn sky over the Florida Space Coast as it headed space-ward atop an Atlas IIAS rocket at 3:08 AM EST from launch complex 39B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Envisioning SOHO

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SOHO on Earth

There aren’t a whole lot of 20th century spacecraft still in operation; SOHO joins the ranks of Hubble and the twin Voyager spacecraft as platforms from another era that have long exceeded their operational lives. Seriously, think back to what YOU were doing in 1995, and what sort of technology graced your desktop. Heck, just thinking of how many iterations of mobile phones spanned the last 20 years is a bit mind-bending. A generation of solar astronomers have grown up with SOHO, and the space-based observatory has consistently came through for researchers and scientists, delivering more bang for the buck.

“SOHO has been truly extraordinary and revolutionary in countless ways,” says  astrophysicist Karl Battams at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington D.C. “SOHO has completely changed our way of thinking about the Sun, solar active regions, eruptive events, and so much more. I honestly can’t think of a more broadly influential space mission than SOHO.”

SOHO has monitored the Sun now for the complete solar cycle #23 and well into the ongoing solar cycle #24. SOHO is a veritable Swiss Army Knife for solar astrophysics, not only monitoring the Sun across optical and ultraviolet wavelengths, but also employing the Michelson Doppler Imager to record magnetogram data and the Large Angle Spectrometric Coronograph (LASCO) able to create an artificial solar eclipse and monitor the pearly white corona of the Sun.

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Peering into the solar interior.

SOHO observes the Sun from its perch one million miles sunward located at the L1 Sun-Earth point. It actually circles this point in space in what is known as a lissajous, or ‘halo’ orbit.

SOHO has revolutionized solar physics and the way we perceive our host star. We nearly lost SOHO early on in its career in 1998, when gyroscope failures caused the spacecraft to lose a lock on the Sun, sending it into a lazy one revolution per minute spin. Quick thinking by engineers led to SOHO using its reaction wheels as a virtual gyroscope, the first spacecraft to do so. SOHO has used this ad hoc method to point sunward ever since. SOHO was also on hand to document the 2003 Halloween flares, the demise of comet ISON on U.S. Thanksgiving Day 2013, and the deep and strangely profound solar minimum that marked the transition from solar cycle 23 to 24.

What was your favorite SOHO moment?

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A massive sunspot witnessed by SOHO in 2000, compared to the Earth.

SOHO is also a champion comet hunter, recently topping an amazing 3000 comets and counting. Though it wasn’t designed to hunt for sungrazers, SOHO routinely sees ’em via its LASCO C2 and C3 cameras, as well as planets and background stars near the Sun. The effort to hunt for sungrazing comets crossing the field of view of SOHO’s LASCO C3 and C2 cameras represents one of the earliest crowd-sourced efforts to do volunteer science online. SOHO has discovered enough comets to characterize and classify the Kreutz family of sungrazers, and much of this effort is volunteer-based. SOHO grew up with the internet, and the images and data made publicly available are an invaluable resource that we now often take for granted.

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A ‘neat’ image…  Comet NEAT photobombs the view of SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera.

NASA/ESA has extended SOHO’s current mission out to the end of 2016. With any luck, SOHO will complete solar cycle 24, and take us into cycle 25 to boot.

“Right now, it (SOHO) is operating in a minimally funded mode, with the bulk of its telemetry dedicated solely to the LASCO coronagraph,” Battams told Universe Today. “Many of its instruments have now been superseded by instruments on other missions. As of today it remains healthy, and I think that’s a testament to the amazing collaboration between ESA and NASA. Together, they’ve kept a spacecraft designed for a two-year mission operating for twenty years.”

Today, missions such as the Solar Dynamics Observatory, Hinode, and Proba-2 have joined SOHO in watching the Sun around the clock. The solar occulting disk capabilities of SOHO’s LASCO C2 and C3 camera remains unique, though ESA’s Proba-3 mission launching in 2018 will feature a free-flying solar occulting disk.

Happy 20th SOHO… you’ve taught us lots about our often tempestuous host star.

-It’s also not too late to vote for your favorite SOHO image.

Is the Sun More Active Than it Looks? An Innovative Method to Characterize the Solar Cycle

The Sun has provided no shortage of mysteries thus far during solar cycle #24.

And perhaps the biggest news story that the Sun has generated recently is what it isn’t doing. As Universe Today recently reported, this cycle has been an especially weak one in terms of performance. The magnetic polarity flip signifying the peak of the solar maximum is just now upon us, as the current solar cycle #24 got off to a late start after a profound minimum in 2009…

Or is it?

Exciting new research out of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor’s Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences published in The Astrophysical Journal this past week suggests that we’re only looking at a portion of the puzzle when it comes to solar cycle activity.

Traditional models rely on the monthly averaged sunspot number. This number correlates a statistical estimation of the number of sunspots seen on the Earthward facing side of the Sun and has been in use since first proposed by Rudolf Wolf in 1848. That’s why you also hear the relative sunspot number sometimes referred to as the Wolf or Zürich Number.

But sunspot numbers may only tell one side of the story. In their recent paper titled Two Novel Parameters to Evaluate the Global Complexity of the Sun’s Magnetic Field and Track the Solar Cycle, researchers Liang Zhao, Enrico Landi and Sarah E. Gibson describe a fresh approach to model solar activity via looking at the 3-D dynamics heliospheric current sheet.

The spiralling curve of the heliospheric current sheet through the inner solar system. (Graphic credit: NASA).
The spiraling curve of the heliospheric current sheet through the inner solar system. (Graphic credit: NASA).

The heliospheric current sheet (or HCS) is the boundary of the Sun’s magnetic field separating the northern and southern polarity regions which extends out into the solar system. During the solar minimum, the sheet is almost flat and skirt-like. But during solar maximum, it’s tilted, wavy and complex.

Two variables, known as SD & SL were used by researchers in the study to produce a measurement that can characterize the 3-D complexity of the HCS.  “SD is the standard deviation of the latitudes of the HCS’s position on each of the Carrington maps of the solar surface, which basically tells us how far away the HCS is distributed from the equator. And SL is the integral of the slope of HCS on that map, which can tell us how wavy the HCS is on each of the map,” Liang Zhao told Universe Today.

Ground and space-based observations of the Sun’s magnetic field exploit a phenomenon known as the Zeeman Effect, which was first demonstrated during solar observations conducted by George Ellery Hale using his new fangled invention of the spectrohelioscope in 1908. For the recent study, researchers used data covering a period from 1975 through 2013 to characterize the HCS data available online from the Wilcox Solar Observatory.

SD and SL perameters juxtaposed against the tradional monthly sunspot number.
SD and SL parameters juxtaposed against the traditional monthly sunspot number (SSN). Note the smooth fit until the end of solar cycle #23 around 2003. (Credit: Liang Zhao/The Astrophysical Journal).

Comparing the HCS value against previous sunspot cycles yields some intriguing results. In particular, comparing the SD and SL values with the monthly sunspot  number provide a “good fit” for the previous three solar cycles— right up until cycle #24.

“Looking at the HCS, we can see that the Sun began to act strange as early as 2003,” Zhao said. “This current cycle as characterized by the monthly sunspot number started a year late, but in terms of HCS values, the maximum of cycle #24 occurred right on time, with a first peak in late 2011.”

“Scientists believe there will be two peaks in the sunspot number in this solar maximum as in the previous maximum (in ~2000 and ~2002),” Zhao continued, “since the Sun’s magnetic fields in the north and south hemispheres look asymmetric, and the north evolved faster than the south recently. But so far as I can see, the highest value of monthly-averaged sunspot number in this cycle 24 is still the one in the November 2011. So we can say the first peak of cycle 24 could be in November of 2011, since it is the highest monthly sunspot number so far in this cycle. If there is a second peak, we will see it sooner or later.”

The paper also notes that although cycle 24 is especially weak when compared to recent cycles, its range of activity is not unique when compared with solar cycles over the past 260 years.

HCS curves plotted on the surface of the Sun.
HCS curves plotted on the surface of the Sun. Comparisons are made for the solar maximum on October 2000 (CR 1968), descending phase on April 2005 (2029), solar minimum on September 2009 (CR 2087), and ascending phase on March 2010 (CR2094). CR=Carrington Rotation. (Credit: Liang Zhao, The Astrophysical Journal).

The HCS value characterizes the Sun over one complete Carrington Rotation of 27 days. This is an averaged value for the rotation of the Sun, as the poles rotate slower than the equatorial regions.

The approximately 22 year span of time that it takes for the poles to reverse back to the same polarity again is equal to two average 11 year sunspot cycles. The Sun’s magnetic field has been exceptionally asymmetric during this cycle, and as of this writing, the Sun has already finished its reversal of the north pole first.

This sort of asymmetry during an imminent pole reversal was first recorded during solar cycle 19, which spanned 1954-1964. Solar cycles are numbered starting from observations which began in 1749, just four decades after the end of the 70-year Maunder Minimum.

“This is an exciting time to study the magnetic field of the Sun, as we may be witnessing a return to a less-active type of cycle, more like those of 100 years ago,” NCAR/HAO senior scientist and co-author Sarah Gibson said.

A massive sunspot group that rotated into view in early July, 2013... one of the largest seen for solar cycle #24 thus far. (Credit: NASA/SDO).
A massive sunspot group that rotated into view in early July, 2013, one of the largest seen for solar cycle #24 thus far. (Credit: NASA/SDO).

But this time, an armada of space and ground-based observatories will scrutinize our host star like never before. The SOlar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) has already followed the Sun through the equivalent of one complete solar cycle— and it has now been joined in space by STEREO A & B, JAXA’s Hinode, ESA’s Proba-2 and NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) was also launched earlier this year and has just recently opened for business.

Will there be a second peak following the magnetic polarity reversal of the Sun’s south pole, or is Cycle #24 about to “leave the building?” And will Cycle #25 be absent all together, as some researchers suggest? What role does the solar cycle play in the complex climate change puzzle? These next few years will prove to be exciting ones for solar science, as the predictive significance of HCS SD & SL values are put to the test… and that’s what good science is all about!

-Read the abstract with a link to the full paper in The Astrophysical Journal by University of Michigan researchers here.