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.

Shape-shifting neutrinos earn physicists the 2015 Nobel

What do Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, Paul Dirac, and Marie Curie have in common? They each won the Nobel prize in physics. And today, Takaaki Kajita and Arthur McDonald have joined their ranks, thanks to a pioneering turn-of-the-century discovery: in defiance of long-held predictions, neutrinos shape-shift between multiple identities, and therefore must have mass.

The neutrino, a slight whiff of a particle that is cast off in certain types of radioactive decay, nuclear reactions, and high-energy cosmic events, could be called… shy. Electrically neutral but enormously abundant, half the time a neutrino could pass through a lightyear of lead without interacting with a single other particle. According to the Standard Model of particle physics, it has a whopping mass of zero.

As you can imagine, neutrinos are notoriously difficult to detect.

But in 1956, scientists did exactly that. And just a few years later, a trio of physicists determined that neutrinos came in not just one, not two, but three different types, or flavors: the electron neutrino, the muon neutrino, and the tau neutrino.

The first annotated neutrino event. Image credit:
The neutrino was first detected in 1956 by Clyde Cowan and Frederick Reines. In 1970, scientists captured the first image of a neutrino track in a hydrogen bubble chamber. Image: Argonne National Laboratory

But there was a problem. Sure, scientists had figured out how to detect neutrinos—but they weren’t detecting enough of them. In fact, the number of electron neutrinos arriving on Earth due to nuclear reactions in the Sun’s core was only one-third to one-half the number their calculations had predicted. What, scientists wondered, was happening to the rest?

Kajita, working at the Super-Kamiokande detector in Japan in 1998, and McDonald, working at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in Canada in 1999, determined that the electron neutrinos were not disappearing at all; rather, these particles were changing identity, spontaneously oscillating between the three flavor-types as they traveled through space.

Moreover, the researchers proclaimed, in order for neutrinos to make such transformations, they must have mass.

This is due to some quantum funny business having to do with the oscillations themselves. Grossly simplified, a massless particle, which always travels at the speed of light, does not experience time—Einstein’s theory of special relativity says so. But change takes time. Any particle that oscillates between identities needs to experience time in order for its state to evolve from one flavor to the the next.

The interior structure of the Sun. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/kelvinsong
Neutrinos are produced in abundance during fusion reactions at the center of our Sun, and oscillate between three different types, or flavors, on their way to Earth. Image: Wikipedia Commons/kelvinsong

Kajita and McDonald’s work showed that neutrinos must have a mass, albeit a very small one. But neutrinos are abundant in the Universe, and even a small mass has a large effect on all sorts of cosmic phenomena, from solar nuclear physics, where neutrinos are produced en masse, to the large-scale evolution of the cosmos, where neutrinos are ubiquitous.

The neutrino, no longer massless, is now considered to play a much larger role in these processes than scientists had originally believed.

What is more, the very existence of a massive neutrino undermines the theoretical basis of the Standard Model. In fact, Kajita’s and McDonald’s discovery provided some of the first evidence that the Standard Model might not be as airtight as had been previously believed, nudging scientists ever more in the direction of so-called “new physics.”

This is not the first time physicists have been awarded a Nobel prize for research into the nature of neutrinos. In 1988, Leon Lederman, Melvin Schwartz, and Jack Steinberger were awarded the prize for their discovery that neutrinos come in three flavors; in 1995, Frederick Reines won a Nobel for his detection of the neutrino along with Clyde Cowan; and in 2002, a Nobel was awarded to Raymond David Jr., the oldest person ever to receive a the prize in physics, and Masatoshi Koshiba for their detection of cosmic neutrinos.

Kajita, of the University of Tokyo, and McDonald, of Queen’s University in Canada, were awarded the prestigious prize this morning at a news conference in Stockholm.

This Video About Solar Superstorms is Narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch and It Looks Awesome.

What’s better than a full 180-degree digital theater experience that takes you into the heart of our Sun to see how solar storms form? Why, all of that accompanied by a rumbling narration by Benedict Cumberbatch, of course.

The video above is a trailer for “Solar Superstorms,” a digital planetarium presentation distributed by Fulldome Film Society and co-produced by Spitz Creative Media, NCSA’s Advanced Visualization Lab, and Thomas Lucas Productions. It uses the monster Blue Waters supercomputers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois to visualize the complex processes occurring in, on, and around the Sun. It might look a little weird in the flat 2D format above, but I can only imagine what it will be like to see it from inside a digital dome (and have the disembodied voice of Smaug/Sherlock/Khan thundering through the room!)

The film itself is still in production so I couldn’t find an official release date. But keep an eye out for it at your nearest planetarium and visit the FulldomeFilm.org catalog page for other films from the same distributor.

You can find a database of fulldome theaters and digital planetariums around the world here.

Video credit: Spitz Creative Media

Watch an Enormous “Plasma Snake” Erupt from the Sun

Over the course of April 28–29 a gigantic filament, briefly suspended above the surface* of the Sun, broke off and created an enormous snakelike eruption of plasma that extended millions of miles out into space. The event was both powerful and beautiful, another demonstration of the incredible energy and activity of our home star…and it was all captured on camera by two of our finest Sun-watching spacecraft.

Watch a video of the event below.

Made from data acquired by both NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and the joint ESA/NASA SOHO spacecraft, the video was compiled by astronomer and sungrazing comet specialist Karl Battams. It shows views of the huge filament before and after detaching from the Sun, and gives a sense of the enormous scale of the event.

At one point the plasma eruption spanned a distance over 33 times farther than the Moon is from Earth!

Filaments are long channels of solar material contained by magnetic fields that have risen up from within the Sun. They are relatively cooler than the visible face of the Sun behind them so they appear dark when silhouetted against it; when seen rising from the Sun’s limb they look bright and are called prominences.

When the magnetic field lines break apart, much of the material contained within the filaments gets flung out into space (a.k.a. a CME) while some gets pulled back down into the Sun. These events are fairly common but that doesn’t make them any less spectacular!

Also read: Watch the Sun Split Apart

This same particularly long filament has also been featured as the Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD), in a photo captured on April 27 by Göran Strand.

For more solar news follow Karl Battams on Twitter.

Image credits: ESA/NASA/SOHO & SDO/NASA and the AIA science team.

*The Sun, being a mass of incandescent gas, doesn’t have a “surface” like rocky planets do so in this case we’re referring to its photosphere and chromosphere.

Orbiting Solar Observatory Sees It Burn, Burn, Burn: The Ring of Fire

Did you catch the solar eclipse on October 23? If so, you saw the Moon “take a bite” out of the Sun (to various extents, depending on your location) during what was a partial eclipse for viewers on Earth. But for the Hinode (pronunciation alert: that’s “HEE-no-day”) solar observatory satellite, in its Sun-synchronous orbit around Earth at an altitude of 600 km (373 miles), the eclipse was annular – a “ring of fire.”

The image above was captured with Hinode’s X-ray Telescope at the moment of maximum annularity. Want to watch it burn, burn, burn like Hinode did? Check out a video below:

Not to be confused with “annual,” meaning yearly, an annular eclipse occurs when the Moon passes directly in front of the Sun but at such a distance from Earth to not quite manage to fully cover the Sun’s disk. The bright ring of visible Sun around the Moon’s silhouette gives the event its name: annular is from the Latin word anulus, meaning ring.

The next annular eclipse to be visible from Earth will occur on Sept. 1, 2016.

Led by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the Hinode mission is a collaboration between the space agencies of Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe, and is now in its eighth year. NASA helped in the development, funding, and assembly of the spacecraft’s three science instruments. Learn more about the mission here.

Image and video credits: NASA/JAXA/SAO

Enjoy This Eye-Meltingly Awesome Photo of Our Sun

Here’s yet another glorious photo of our home star, captured and processed by New York artist and photographer Alan Friedman on August 24, 2014. Alan took the photo using his 90mm hydrogen-alpha telescope – aka “Little Big Man” –  from his backyard in Buffalo, inverted the resulting image and colorized it to create the beautiful image above. Fantastic!

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in our Sun. The “surface” of the Sun and the layer just above it — the photosphere and chromosphere — are regions where atomic hydrogen exists profusely in upper-state form, and it’s these layers that hydrogen alpha photography reveals in the most detail.

In Alan’s image from Aug. 24 several active sunspot regions can be seen, as well as long snaking filaments (which show up bright in this inverted view – in optical light they appear darker against the face of the Sun) and several prominences rising up along the Sun’s limb, one of which along the left side stretching completely off the frame a hundred thousand miles into space!

Click here to see the image above as well as some close-ups from the same day on Alan’s astrophotography website AvertedImagination.com. And you can learn more about how (and why) Alan makes such beautiful images of our home star here.

Photo © Alan Friedman. All rights reserved.

The Sun Fires Off a Third X-Class Flare

Remember yesterday when we mentioned two X-class flares erupting from the Sun within the space of about an hour? We probably should have waited a bit and gone for the trifecta: this morning the same active region flared yet again, making it three high-powered flares within a single 24-hour period.

(And to think this active region has only just come around the corner!)
On June 10, 2014, AR2087 announced its arrival around the southwestern limb of the Sun with an X2.2 flare at 11:41 UT (7:41 a.m. EDT). Then, just over an hour later, another eruption: an X1.5 flare at 12:55 UT. This got pretty much everyone’s attention… here comes 2087!

Perhaps figuring third time’s a charm, the active region blazed with a third flare this morning at 9:05 UT (5:05 a.m. EDT). “Only” an X1-class, it was the weakest of the three but AR2087 still has plenty of time for more as it makes its way around the Sun’s face — all the while aiming more and more our way, too.

Here’s a video of SDO observations showing the two June 10 flares:

X-class flares are the strongest in the letter-classification of solar flares, which send blasts of electromagnetic energy out into the Solar System. While these most recent three are low on the X-scale, they may result in increased auroral activity — especially since it appears that the first two were followed by a pair of CMEs that “cannibalized” each other on their way out. The resulting merged cloud of charged particles is expected to nick Earth’s magnetic field on Friday, June 13. (Source: Spaceweather.com)

No CME has been observed from the June 11 flare, but again: AR2087 hasn’t left the stage yet. Stay tuned!

Source: NASA. Learn more about how solar flares impact us on Earth here.

This Was the Best Watched Solar Flare Ever

Are giant dragons flying out of the Sun? No, this is much more awesome than that: it’s an image of an X-class flare that erupted from active region 2017 on March 29, as seen by NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) spacecraft. It was not only IRIS’s first view of such a powerful flare, but with four other solar observatories in space and on the ground watching at the same time it was the best-observed solar flare ever.

(But it does kind of look like a dragon. Or maybe a phoenix. Ah, pareidolia!)

Check out a video from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center below:

In addition to IRIS, the March 29 flare was observed by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), NASA’s Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI), JAXA and NASA’s Hinode spacecraft, and the National Solar Observatory’s Dunn Solar Telescope in New Mexico.

With each telescope equipped with instruments specially designed to observe the Sun in specific wavelengths almost no detail of this particular flare went unnoticed, giving scientists comprehensive data on the complex behavior of a single solar eruption.

Also, for another look at this flare from SDO and a coronal dimming event apparently associated with it, check out Dean Pesnell’s entry on the SDO is GO! blog here.


Astronomy Cast 322: SOHO

As we’ve mentioned before, the Sun is a terrifying ball of plasma. It’s a good thing we’re keeping an eye on it. And that eye is the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO. Operating for more than 18 years now, SOHO has been making detailed observations of the Sun’s activity though an almost entire solar cycle. With so many years of operation, SOHO has some amazing stories to tell.

Continue reading “Astronomy Cast 322: SOHO”

Watch the Sun Split Apart

Here’s your amazing oh-my-gosh-space-is-so-cool video of the day — a “canyon of fire” forming on the Sun after the liftoff and detachment of an enormous filament on September 29-30. A new video, created from images captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and assembled by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, shows the entire dramatic event unfolding in all its mesmerizing magnetic glory.

Watch it below:

Solarrific! (And I highly suggest full-screening it in HD.) That filament was 200,000 miles long, and the rift that formed afterwards was well over a dozen Earths wide!

Captured in various wavelengths of light by SDO’s Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) the video shows the solar schism in different layers of the Sun’s corona, which varies greatly in temperature at different altitudes.

According to the description from Karen Fox at GSFC:

“The red images shown in the movie help highlight plasma at temperatures of 90,000° F and are good for observing filaments as they form and erupt. The yellow images, showing temperatures at 1,000,000° F, are useful for observing material coursing along the sun’s magnetic field lines, seen in the movie as an arcade of loops across the area of the eruption. The browner images at the beginning of the movie show material at temperatures of 1,800,000° F, and it is here where the canyon of fire imagery is most obvious.”

Now, there’s not really any “fire” on the Sun — that’s just an illustrative term. What we’re actually seeing here is plasma contained by powerful magnetic fields that constantly twist and churn across the Sun’s surface and well up from its interior. The Sun is boiling with magnetic fields, and when particularly large ones erupt from deep below its surface we get the features we see as sunspots, filaments, and prominences.

When those fields break, the plasma they contained gets blasted out into space as coronal mass ejections… and this is what typically happens when one hits Earth. (But it could be much worse.)

Hey, that’s what it’s like living with a star!

Stay up to date on the latest solar events on the SDO mission page here.