Awesome Photo Shows Monster Sunspot Aiming Our Way

Visible light image of the Sun captured on Oct. 19, 2014. © Alan Friedman. All rights reserved.

It’s a-comin’: a “monster” sunspot is steadily rotating around the Sun’s southern hemisphere and will soon be in position to fire flares and CMEs in our direction — and this past weekend master solar photographer Alan Friedman captured it on camera!

The image above was taken in full-spectrum visible light on Sunday, Oct. 19 by Alan from his backyard in Buffalo, New York. Sunspots 2186 (at the top limb), 2187 (upper center), 2193 (the small middle cluster) and the enormous AR2192 are easily visible as dark blotches – “cooler” regions on the Sun’s surface where upwelling magnetic fields interrupt the convective processes that drive the Sun’s energy output.

This particular image was a single frame of video, unlike some of Alan’s other photographs. According to Alan the air turbulence was particularly bad that day, shooting between the clouds, so only this one frame was usable. Click the image for full-scale “wow” factor.

(And if you think AR2192 looks scary in that image, check it out in CaK bands here!)

Scale size of Earth compared to AR2192 on Oct. 20 (NASA/SDO/AIA. Edit by J. Major.)
Scale size of Earth compared to AR2192 on Oct. 20 (NASA/SDO/AIA. Diagram by J. Major.)

According to Spaceweather.com AR2192 has grown considerably over the past few days and has the potential to unleash M- and X-class flares in our direction now that it’s moving into Earth-facing position. It’s currently many times larger than Earth and will likely get even bigger… in fact, during this week’s partial solar eclipse AR2192 should be visible with the naked (but not unprotected!) eye for viewers across much of North America.

See more of Alan’s photography on his Averted Imagination site here (with prints available for purchase) and watch a TEDx presentation by Alan on how and why he does solar photography.

Image © Alan Friedman. Used with permission.

A New Marker Might Better Track the Solar Cycle

This image from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) Extreme ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (EIT) image shows large magnetically active regions and a pair of curving erupting prominences on June 28, 2000 during the current solar cycle 23 maximum. Prominences are huge clouds of relatively cool dense plasma suspended in the Sun's hot, thin corona. Magnetically active regions cause the principal total solar irradiance variations during each solar cycle. The hottest areas appear almost white, while the darker red areas indicate cooler temperatures. Credit: NASA & European Space Agency (ESA)
The Sun. Credit: NASA & European Space Agency (ESA)

Approximately every 11 years the Sun becomes violently active, putting on a show of magnetic activity for aurora watchers and sungazers alike. But the timing of the solar cycle is far from precise, making it hard to determine the exact underlying physics.

Typically astronomers use sunspots to map the course of the solar cycle, but now an international team of astronomers have discovered a new marker: brightpoints, small bright spots in the solar atmosphere that allow us to observe the constant turmoil of material inside the Sun.

The new markers provide a new method in understanding how the Sun’s magnetic field evolves over time, suggesting a deeper and longer cycle.

A well-behaved Sun flips its north and south magnetic poles every 11 years. The cycle begins when the field is weak and dipolar. But the Sun’s rotation is faster at its equator than at its poles, and this difference stretches and tangles the magnetic field lines, ultimately producing sunspots, prominences, and sometimes flares.

“Sunspots have been the perennial marker for understanding the mechanisms that rule the sun’s interior,” said lead author Scott McIntosh, from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in a news release. “But the processes that make sunspots are not well understood, and far less, those that govern their migration and what drives their movement.”

So McIntosh and colleagues developed a new tracking devise: spots of extreme ultraviolet and X-ray light, known as brightpoints in the Sun’s atmosphere, or corona.

“Now we can see there are bright points in the solar atmosphere, which act like buoys anchored to what’s going on much deeper down,” said McIntosh. “They help us develop a different picture of the interior of the sun.”

McIntosh and colleagues dug through the wealth of data available from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory and the Solar Dynamics Observatory. They noticed that multiple bands of these markers also move steadily toward the equator over time. But they do so on a different timescale than sunspots.

At solar minimum there might be two bands in the northern hemisphere (one positive and one negative) and two bands in the southern hemisphere (one negative and one positive). Due to their close proximity, bands of opposite charge easily cancel one another, causing the Sun’s magnetic system to be calmer, producing fewer sunspots and eruptions.

But once the two low-latitude bands reach the equator, their polarities cancel each other out and the bands abruptly disappear — a process that takes 19 years on average.

The Sun is now left with just two large bands that have migrated to about 30 degrees latitude. Without the nearby band, the polarities don’t cancel. At this point the Sun’s calm face begins to become violently active as sunspots start to grow rapidly.

Solar maximum only lasts so long, however, because the process of generating a new band of opposite polarity has already begun at high latitudes.

In this scenario, it is the magnetic band’s cycle that truly defines the solar cycle. “Thus, the 11-year solar cycle can be viewed as the overlap between two much longer cycles,” said coauthor Robert Leamon, from Montana State University in Bozeman.

The true test, however, will come with the next solar cycle. McIntosh and colleagues predict that the Sun will enter a solar minimum somewhere in the last half of 2017, and the first sunspots of the next cycle will appear near the end of 2019.

The findings have been published in the Sept. 1 issue of the Astrophysical Journal and are available online.

NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission to Provide 1st 3-D View of Earth’s Magnetic Reconnection Process – Cleanroom visit with Bolden

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Story updated[/caption]

NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MD – NASA’s upcoming Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission is comprised of a quartet of identically instrumented observatories aimed at providing the first three-dimensional views of a fundamental process in nature known as magnetic reconnection. They were unveiled to greet NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on Monday, May 12, in a rare fully stacked arrangement inside the Goddard cleanroom.

Universe Today was on hand with NASA Administrator Bolden, Science Mission Chief John Grunsfeld and the MMS mission team at Goddard for a first hand inspection and up close look at the 20 foot tall, four spacecraft stacked configuration in the cleanroom and for briefings about the projects fundamental science goals.

“I’m visiting with the MMS team today to find out the status of this mission scheduled to fly early in 2015. It’s one of many projects here at Goddard,” NASA Administrator Bolden told me in an exclusive one-on-one interview at the MMS cleanroom.

“MMS will help us study the phenomena known as magnetic reconnection and help us understand how energy from the sun – magnetic and otherwise – affects our own life here on Earth. MMS will study what effects that process … and how the magnetosphere protects Earth.”

Magnetic reconnection is the process whereby magnetic fields around Earth connect and disconnect while explosively releasing vast amounts of energy.

Technicians work on NASA’s 20-foot-tall Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mated quartet of stacked observatories in the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Technicians work on NASA’s 20-foot-tall Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mated quartet of stacked observatories in the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

MMS measurements should lead to significant improvements in models for yielding better predictions of space weather and thereby the resulting impacts for life here on Earth as well as for humans aboard the ISS and robotic satellite explorers in orbit and the heavens beyond.

The four identical spacecraft – which are still undergoing testing – were stacked in a rarely seen launch arrangement known affectionately as the “IHOP configuration” – because they look rather like a stack of luscious pancakes.

“MMS is a fundamental heliophysics science mission,” Craig Tooley told me at the MMS cleanroom. Tooley is MMS project manager at NASA Goddard.

“Unlike Hubble that uses remote sensing, MMS is like a flying laboratory ‘in situ’ that will capture events that are the major energy transfer from the sun’s magnetic field into our Earth’s space weather environment and magnetosphere.”

“These are called magnetic reconnection events that pump enormous amounts of energy into the plasma and the fields around Earth. It’s one of the main drivers of space weather and a fundamental physical process that is not very well understood,” Tooley explained.

“The spacecraft were built in-house here at Goddard and just completed vibration testing.”

MMS will launch atop an Atlas V rocket in March 2015 from Space launch Complex 41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Artist rendition of the four MMS spacecraft in orbit in Earth’s magnetic field. Credit: NASA
Artist rendition of the four MMS spacecraft in orbit in Earth’s magnetic field. Credit: NASA

The vibration testing is a major milestone and is conducted to ensure the spacecraft can withstand the most extreme vibration and dynamic loads they will experience and which occurs during liftoff inside the fairing of the Atlas V booster.

MMS is also another highly valuable NASA science mission (along with MAVEN, LADEE and others) which suffered launch delays and increased costs as a result of the US government shutdown last October 2013, Bolden confirmed to Universe Today.

“We ended up slipping beyond the original October 2014 date due to the government shutdown and [the team] being out of work for a couple of weeks. MMS is now scheduled to launch in March 2015,” Bolden told me.

“So then you are at the mercy of the launch provider.”

“The downside to slipping that far is that’s its [MMS] costing more to launch,” Bolden stated.

Each of the Earth orbiting spacecraft is outfitted with 25 science sensors to study the microphysics of three fundamental plasma processes: magnetic reconnection, energetic particle acceleration, and turbulence.

Magnetic reconnection occurs throughout our universe.

“The primary mission will last two years,” Tooley told me.

“Each spacecraft carries about 400 kilograms of fuel. There is a possibility to extend the mission by about a year based on fuel consumption.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Ken Kremer (Universe Today) inspect NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mated quartet of stacked spacecraft at the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Ken Kremer (Universe Today) inspect NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mated quartet of stacked spacecraft at the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The spacecraft will use the Earth itself as a laboratory to unlock the mysteries of magnetic reconnection – the primary process that transfers energy from the solar wind into Earth’s magnetosphere and is responsible for geomagnetic storms.

“To understand the fundamental physics, they will fly in a pyramid-like formation and capture the magnetic reconnection events in 3-D by flying through them as they happen – that’s why we have 4 spacecraft,” Tooley explained.

“Initially they will be spaced apart by about 10 to 30 kilometers while they fly in a tetrahedron formation and scan with their booms spread out – depending on what the scientists says is the optimal configuration.”

“They fly in a highly elliptical orbit between about 7,000 and 75,000 kilometers altitude during the first half of the mission. Eventually the orbit will be extended out to about 150,000 kilometers.”

The best place to study magnetic reconnection is ‘in situ’ in Earth’s magnetosphere.

This will lead to better predictions of space weather phenomena.

NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission
NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission

Magnetic reconnection is also believed to help trigger the spectacular aurora known as the Northern or Southern lights.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing MMS, Curiosity, Opportunity, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Boeing, Orion, LADEE, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

………

Ken’s upcoming presentation: Mercy College, NY, May 19: “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars” and “NASA’s Future Crewed Spaceships.”

MMS Project Manager Craig Tooley (right) and Ken Kremer (Universe Today) discuss  science objectives of NASA’s upcoming Magnetospheric Multiscale mission by 20 foot tall mated quartet of stacked spacecraft at the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
MMS Project Manager Craig Tooley (right) and Ken Kremer (Universe Today) discuss science objectives of NASA’s upcoming Magnetospheric Multiscale mission by 20 foot tall mated quartet of stacked spacecraft at the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Monster Sunspot Erupts with an X-Class Flare

Image of the X1.2 class solar flare from the Sun on January 7, 2014, as seen from the Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Solar astronomers have been keeping an eye on giant sunspot AR1944, and as it turned towards Earth today, the sunspot erupted with a powerful X1.2-class flare. NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center said the flare sparked a “strong radio blackout” today, and they have issued a 24 hour “moderate” magnetic storm watch indicating a coronal mass ejection (CME) associated with the flare may be heading towards Earth. A CME is a fast moving cloud of charged particles which can interact with Earth’s atmosphere to cause aurora, so observers in northern and southern latitudes should be on the lookout for aurora, possibly through January 10.

Here’s a video of the flare from the Solar Dynamics Observatory:

The SWPC forecasters said they are anticipating G2 (Moderate) Geomagnetic Storm conditions to occur on January 9, followed by G1 (Minor) levels January 10. NOAA estimates the CME headed towards Earth might produce a Kp number of 6.

The Earth-directed CME launched from AR1944 at 1832 UTC (1:32 p.m. EST) on January 7. Here’s an animation of the CME. Astronomers have said that this sunspot region remains “well-placed and energetic” so there could be subsequent activity.

A closeup look at sunspot AR1944 on January 6, 2013, comparing its size to Earth. Credit and copyright:  Ron Cottrell.
A closeup look at sunspot AR1944 on January 6, 2013, comparing its size to Earth. Credit and copyright: Ron Cottrell.

According to SpaceWeather.com, AR1944 has “an unstable ‘beta-gamma-delta’ magnetic field,” making it ripe for activity. Here’s a quick video of today’s X-class flare showing the coronal wave:

AR144 as seen on January 7, 2014. At the bottom are size comparisons to Earth and Jupiter. Credit and copyright: Giuseppe Petricca.
AR144 as seen on January 7, 2014. At the bottom are size comparisons to Earth and Jupiter. Credit and copyright: Giuseppe Petricca.

The Solar Dynamics Observatory has a “self-updating” webpage showing the latest views of the Sun in various wavelengths.

What Left These Spooky Trails in the Sky?

Glowing trails seen in the early morning sky over the Marshall Islands (NASA/Jon Grant)

Ball lightning? Spectral orbs? Swamp gas? Early this morning, May 7, these eerie glowing trails were seen in the sky above the Marshall Islands and were captured on camera by NASA photographer John Grant. Of course, if NASA’s involved there has to be a reasonable explanation, right?

For a larger image (and to see what really caused the trails) click below:

Credit: NASA/Jon Grant
Credit: NASA/John Grant

Although it might look like cheesy special effects, these colorful clouds are actually visible trails that were left by two sounding rockets launched from Roi Namur in the Marshall Islands, at 3:39 a.m. EDT on May 7. The rockets were part of the NASA-funded EVEX experiment to study winds and electrical activity in the upper atmosphere.

The red cloud was formed by the release of lithium vapor and the white-and-blue tracer clouds were formed by the release of trimethyl aluminum (TMA). These clouds allowed scientists on the ground from various locations in the Marshall Islands to observe neutral winds in the ionosphere.

“Neutral winds are one of the hardest things to study,” said Doug Rowland, an EVEX team member at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “One can’t physically see the wind, and it is difficult to measure from the ground, so we use the TMA as a tracer.”

Launch of the second EVEX rocket on the morning of May 7. The plume from the first is visible on the left. (NASA/John Grant)
Launch of the second EVEX rocket on the morning of May 7. The plume from the first is visible on the left. (NASA/John Grant)

The EVEX (Equatorial Vortex Experiment) rockets were launched 90 seconds apart. By staggering the launches the two rockets were able to gather data simultaneously at two altitudes through the ionosphere.

Beginning about 60 miles (96 km) up, the ionosphere is a crucial layer of charged particles surrounding our planet. This layer serves as the medium through which high frequency radio waves – such as those sent down to the ground by satellites – travel. Governed by Earth’s magnetic field, high-altitude winds, and incoming material and energy from the sun, the ionosphere can be calm at certain times of day and at other times turbulent, disrupting satellite signals.

The EVEX experiment is designed to measure events in two separate regions of the ionosphere to see how they work together to drive it from placid and smooth to violently disturbed. Such information could ultimately lead to the ability to accurately forecast this important aspect of space weather.

Read more here.

Image source: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center on Flickr

The White House Releases a Report on Space Weather

A long, magnetic filament burst out from the Sun after a C-cladd flare on(Aug. 31, 2012 (NASA/SDO/AIA)

We live on a planet dominated by weather. But not just the kind that comes in the form of wind, rain, and snow — we are also under the influence of space weather, generated by the incredible power of our home star a “mere” 93 million miles away. As we orbit the Sun our planet is, in effect, inside its outer atmosphere, and as such is subject to the constantly-flowing wind of charged particles and occasional outbursts of radiation and material that it releases. Although it may sound like something from science fiction, space weather is very real… and the more we rely on sensitive electronics and satellites in orbit, the more we’ll need to have accurate weather reports.

Fortunately, the reality of space weather has not gone unnoticed by the U.S. Federal Government.

An X1.6 flare eruption on Jan. 27, 2012 (NASA/SDO/AIA)
An X1.6 flare eruption on Jan. 27, 2012 (NASA/SDO/AIA)

Today the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy released a new report, Space Weather Observing Systems: Current Capabilities and Requirements for the Next Decade, which is an assessment of the United States government’s capacity to monitor and forecast potentially harmful space weather and how to possibly mitigate the damage from any exceptionally powerful solar storms in the future.

The report was made by a Joint Action Group (JAG) formed by the National Space Weather Program Council (NSWPC).

The impacts of space weather can have serious economic consequences. For example, geomagnetic storms during the 1990’s knocked out several telecommunications satellites, which had to be replaced at a cost of about $200 million each. If another “once in a century” severe geomagnetic storm occurs (such as the 1859 “super storm”), the cost on the satellite industry alone could be approximately $50 – $100 billion. The potential consequences on the Nation’s power grid are even higher, with potential costs of $1 – 2 trillion that could take up to a decade to completely repair.

– Report on Space Weather Observing Systems: Current Capabilities and Requirements for the Next Decade (April 2013)

“In other words,” according to the report, “the Nation is at risk of losing critical capabilities that have significant economic and security impacts should these key space weather observing systems fail to be maintained and replaced.”

Obviously, not good.

Read the full report here, and follow current and ongoing space weather events on the NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center website.

Source: White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

The National Space Weather Program is a Federal interagency initiative with the mission of advancing the improvement of space weather services and supporting research in order to prepare the country for the technological, economic, security, and health impacts that may arise from extreme space weather events. 

Question About Space Weather? NASA Scientists Have Answers

What’s the difference between a solar flare and a coronal mass ejection? What causes such energetic space events? Worried that the current solar cycle could harm our planet? Here’s part one of a two-part series of common questions people have about the Sun, space weather, and how they affect the Earth. (Part 2 will come out tomorrow.)

There’s also a great webpage from Goddard Space Flight Center that provides video answer to 25 questions on this this topic, such as “could a CME strip off the Earth’s magnetic field?” Check them all out!

Cold Plasma Flourishes In Earth’s Upper Atmosphere

A rendering of the Cluster satellite, designed to measure electric fields, which Andre and Cully used to detect low-energy ions high above the Earth. (Credit: European Space Agency)

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Thousands of miles above Earth, space weather rules. Here storms of high-energy particles mix the atmosphere, create auroras, challenge satellites and even cause disturbances with electric grids and electronic devices below. It’s a seemingly empty and lonely place – one where a mystery called “cold plasma” has been found in abundance and may well have implications with our connection to the Sun. While it has remained virtually hidden, Swedish researchers have created a new method to measure these cold, charged ions. With evidence of more there than once thought, these new findings may very well give us clues as to what’s happening around other planets and their natural satellites.

“The more you look for low-energy ions, the more you find,” said Mats Andre, a professor of space physics at the Swedish Institute of Space Physics in Uppsala, Sweden, and leader of the research team whose findings have been accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. “We didn’t know how much was out there. It’s more than even I thought.”

Where does this enigma originate? The low-energy ions begin in the upper portion of our atmosphere called the ionosphere. Here solar energy can strip electrons from molecules, leaving atoms such as oxygen and hydrogen with a positive charge. However, physically finding these ions has been problematic. While researchers knew they existed at altitudes of about 100 kilometers (60 miles), Andre and colleague Chris Cully set their sites higher – at between 20,000 and 100,000 km (12,400 to 60,000 mi). At the edge, the amount of cold ions varies between 50 to 70%… making up most of the mass of space.

However, that’s not the only place cold plasma has been found. According to the research satellite data and calculations, certain high-altitude zones harbor low-energy ions continuously. As far fetched as it may sound, the team has also detected them at altitudes of 100,000 km! According to Andre, discovering so many relatively cool ions in these regions is surprising because there’s so much energy hitting the Earth’s high altitudes from the solar wind – a hot plasma about 1,000 times hotter than what Andre considers cold. Just how cold? “The low-energy ions have an energy that would correspond to about 500,000 degrees Celsius (about one million degrees Fahrenheit) at typical gas densities found on Earth. But because the density of the ions in space is so low, satellites and spacecraft can orbit without bursting into flames.”

A scientist examines one of the European Space Agency's four Cluster satellites, used in a recent Geophysical Research Letters study to measure low-energy ions. (Credit: European Space Agency)

Pinpointing these low-energy ions and measuring how much material is leaving our atmosphere has been an elusive task. Andre’s workshop is a satellite and one of the four European Space Agency CLUSTER spacecraft. It houses a detector created from a fine wire that measures the electronic field between them during satellite rotation. However, when the data was collected, the researchers found a pair of mysteries – strong electric fields in unexpected areas of space and electric fields that didn’t fluctuate evenly.

“To a scientist, it looked pretty ugly,” Andre said. “We tried to figure out what was wrong with the instrument. Then we realized there’s nothing wrong with the instrument.” What they found opened their eyes. Cold plasma was changing the arrangement of the electrical fields surrounding the satellite. This made them realize they could utilize their field measurements to validate the presence of cold plasma. “It’s a clever way of turning the limitations of a spacecraft-based detector into assets,” said Thomas Moore, senior project scientist for NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale mission at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. He was not involved in the new research.

Through these new techniques, science can measure and map Earth’s cold plasma envelope – and learn more about how both hot and cold plasma change during extreme space weather conditions. This research points towards a better understanding of atmospheres other than our own, too. Currently the new measurements show about a kilogram (two pounds) of cold plasma escapes from Earth’s atmosphere every second, By having a solid figure as a basis for rate of loss, scientists may be able model what became of Mars’ atmosphere – or explain the atmosphere around other planets and moons. It can also aid in more accurate space weather forecasting – even if it doesn’t directly influence the environment itself. It is a key player, even if it doesn’t cause the damage itself. “You may want to know where the low-pressure area is, to predict a storm,” Andre noted.

Modernizing space weather forecasting to where it is similar to ordinary weather forecasting, was “not even remotely possible if you’re missing most of your plasma,” Moore, with NASA, said. Now, with a way to measure cold plasma, the goal of high-quality forecasts is one step closer. “It is stuff we couldn’t see and couldn’t detect, and then suddenly we could measure it,” Moore said of the low-energy ions. “Now you can actually study it and see if it agrees with the theories.”

Original Story Source: American Geophysical Union News Release. For Further Reading: Low-energy ions: A previously hidden solar system particle population.

Stormy Weather: Brown Dwarf Star Could Model Extra-Solar Planet Atmosphere

Astronomers have observed extreme brightness changes on a nearby brown dwarf that may indicate a storm grander than any seen yet on a planet. This finding could new shed light on the atmospheres and weather on extra-solar planets. Credit: Art by Jon Lomberg.

[/caption]Thanks to the help of the infrared camera on the 2.5m telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, astronomers are taking a very close look at a brown dwarf star named 2MASS J2139. During a recent survey they noticed something a little bit peculiar about this transitional solar system entity. Not only does it lay somewhere in-between being a dwarf star or a large planet – but it would appear to have a form of weather. Apparently there’s no place to escape clouds!

A University of Toronto-led team of astronomers had been doing a survey of nearby brown dwarfs, when they noticed that one in particular changed brightness in a matter of hours – the largest variation observed so far.

“We found that our target’s brightness changed by a whopping 30 per cent in just under eight hours,” said PhD candidate Jacqueline Radigan, lead author of a paper to be presented this week at the Extreme Solar Systems II conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and submitted to the Astrophysical Journal. “The best explanation is that brighter and darker patches of its atmosphere are coming into our view as the brown dwarf spins on its axis,” said Radigan.

The team quickly took into account all possibilities for the differences in magnitude – from the possibility of a binary companion to cool magnetic spots – but none of these answers were likely. What could be causing this difference in brightness that seemed to be rotational?

“We might be looking at a gigantic storm raging on this brown dwarf, perhaps a grander version of the Great Red Spot on Jupiter in our own solar system, or we may be seeing the hotter, deeper layers of its atmosphere through big holes in the cloud deck,” said co-author Professor Ray Jayawardhana, Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics at the University of Toronto and author of the recent book Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life beyond Our Solar System.

Using computer modeling, astronomers can hypothesize what may be going on as silicates and metals mix over a variety of temperatures. The result is a condensate cloud. Thanks to 2MASS J2139’s variability, we’re able to observe what may be evolving “weather patterns”. These models may one day help us to extrapolate extra-solar giant planet weather conditions.

“Measuring how quickly cloud features change in brown dwarf atmospheres may allow us to infer atmospheric wind speeds eventually and teach us about how winds are generated in brown dwarf and planetary atmospheres,” Radigan added.

Original Story Source: University of Toronto News. For Further Reading: High Amplitude, Periodic Variability of a Cool Brown Dwarf: Evidence for Patchy, High-Contrast Cloud Features.