It’s been 124 days since the Parker Solar Probe was launched, and several weeks since it made the closest approach any spacecraft has ever made to a star. Now, scientists are getting their hands on the data from the close approach. Four researchers at the recent meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C. shared what they hope they can learn from the probe. They hope that data from the Parker Solar Probe will help them answer decades-old question about the Sun, its corona, and the solar wind.
Scientists who study the Sun have been anticipating this for a long time, and the waiting has been worth it.
“Heliophysicists have been waiting more than 60 years for a mission like this to be possible. The solar mysteries we want to solve are waiting in the corona.” – Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters.
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is now the closest object to the Sun that we’ve ever sent into space. On Oct. 29, 2018, at about 1:04 p.m. EDT, NASA’s probe broke the old record for the close-to-Sun distance of 42.73 million km (26.55 million miles). That record was held by the German-American Helios 2 spacecraft in 1976. And the probe will keep getting closer to the Sun.
To the naked eye, the Sun puts out energy in a continual, steady state, unchanged through human history. (Don’t look at the sun with your naked eye!) But telescopes tuned to different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum reveal the Sun’s true nature: A shifting, dynamic ball of plasma with a turbulent life. And that dynamic, magnetic turbulence creates space weather.
Space weather is mostly invisible to us, but the part we can see is one of nature’s most stunning displays, the auroras. The aurora’s are triggered when energetic material from the Sun slams into the Earth’s magnetic field. The result is the shimmering, shifting bands of color seen at northern and southern latitudes, also known as the northern and southern lights.
There are two things that can cause auroras, but both start with the Sun. The first involves solar flares. Highly-active regions on the Sun’s surface produce more solar flares, which are sudden, localized increase in the Sun’s brightness. Often, but not always, a solar flare is coupled with a coronal mass ejection (CME).
A coronal mass ejection is a discharge of matter and electromagnetic radiation into space. This magnetized plasma is mostly protons and electrons. The CME ejection often just disperses into space, but not always. If it’s aimed in the direction of the Earth, chances are we get increased auroral activity.
The second cause of auroras are coronal holes on the Sun’s surface. A coronal hole is a region on the surface of the Sun that is cooler and less dense than surrounding areas. Coronal holes are the source of fast-moving streams of material from the Sun.
Whether it’s from an active region on the Sun full of solar flares, or whether it’s from a coronal hole, the result is the same. When the discharge from the Sun strikes the charged particles in our own magnetosphere with enough force, both can be forced into our upper atmosphere. As they reach the atmosphere, they give up their energy. This causes constituents in our atmosphere to emit light. Anyone who has witnessed an aurora knows just how striking that light can be. The shifting and shimmering patterns of light are mesmerizing.
The auroras occur in a region called the auroral oval, which is biased towards the night side of the Earth. This oval is expanded by stronger solar emissions. So when we watch the surface of the Sun for increased activity, we can often predict brighter auroras which will be more visible in southern latitudes, due to the expansion of the auroral oval.
Something happening on the surface of the Sun in the last couple days could signal increased auroras on Earth, tonight and tomorrow (March 28th, 29th). A feature called a trans-equatorial coronal hole is facing Earth, which could mean that a strong solar wind is about to hit us. If it does, look north or south at night, depending on where your live, to see the auroras.
Of course, auroras are only one aspect of space weather. They’re like rainbows, because they’re very pretty, and they’re harmless. But space weather can be much more powerful, and can produce much greater effects than mere auroras. That’s why there’s a growing effort to be able to predict space weather by watching the Sun.
A powerful enough solar storm can produce a CME strong enough to damage things like power systems, navigation systems, communications systems, and satellites. The Carrington Event in 1859 was one such event. It produced one of the largest solar storms on record.
That storm occurred on September 1st and 2nd, 1859. It was preceded by an increase in sun spots, and the flare that accompanied the CME was observed by astronomers. The auroras caused by this storm were seen as far south as the Caribbean.
The same storm today, in our modern technological world, would wreak havoc. In 2012, we almost found out exactly how damaging a storm of that magnitude could be. A pair of CMEs as powerful as the Carrington Event came barreling towards Earth, but narrowly missed us.
We’ve learned a lot about the Sun and solar storms since 1859. We now know that the Sun’s activity is cyclical. Every 11 years, the Sun goes through its cycle, from solar maximum to solar minimum. The maximum and minimum correspond to periods of maximum sunspot activity and minimum sunspot activity. The 11 year cycle goes from minimum to minimum. When the Sun’s activity is at its minimum in the cycle, most CMEs come from coronal holes.
NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), and the combined ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) are space observatories tasked with studying the Sun. The SDO focuses on the Sun and its magnetic field, and how changes influence life on Earth and our technological systems. SOHO studies the structure and behavior of the solar interior, and also how the solar wind is produced.
Several different websites allow anyone to check in on the behavior of the Sun, and to see what space weather might be coming our way. The NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center has an array of data and visualizations to help understand what’s going on with the Sun. Scroll down to the Aurora forecast to watch a visualization of expected auroral activity.
NASA’s Space Weather site contains all kinds of news about NASA missions and discoveries around space weather. SpaceWeatherLive.com is a volunteer run site that provides real-time info on space weather. You can even sign up to receive alerts for upcoming auroras and other solar activity.
How would you like to take an all-expenses-paid trip to the Sun? NASA is inviting people around the world to submit their names to be placed on a microchip aboard the Parker Solar Probe mission that will launch this summer. As the spacecraft dips into the blazing hot solar corona your name will go along for the ride. To sign up, submit your name and e-mail. After a confirming e-mail, your digital “seat” will be booked. You can even print off a spiffy ticket. Submissions will be accepted until April 27, so come on down!
The Parker Solar Probe is the size of a small car and named for Prof. Eugene Parker, a 90-year-old American astrophysicist who in 1958 discovered the solar wind. It’s the first time that NASA has named a spacecraft after a living person. The Parker probe will launch between July 31 and August 19 but not immediately head for the Sun. Instead it will make a beeline for Venus for the first of seven flybys. Each gravity assist will slow the craft down and reshape its orbit (see below), so it later can pass extremely close to the Sun. The first flyby is slated for late September.
When heading to faraway places, NASA typically will fly by a planet to increase the spacecraft’s speed by robbing energy from its orbital motion. But a probe can also approach a planet on a different trajectory to slow itself down or reconfigure its orbit.
The spacecraft will swing well within the orbit of Mercury and more than seven times closer than any spacecraft has come to the Sun before. When closest at just 3.9 million miles (6.3 million km), it will pass through the Sun’s outer atmosphere called the corona and be subjected to temperatures around 2,500°F (1,377°C). The primary science goals for the mission are to trace how energy and heat move through the solar corona and to explore what accelerates the solar wind as well as solar energetic particles.
The vagaries of the solar wind, a steady flow of particles that “blows” from the Sun’s corona at more than million miles an hour, can touch Earth in beautiful ways as when it energizes the aurora borealis. But it can also damage spacecraft electronics and poorly protected power grids on the ground. That’s why scientists want to know more about how the corona works, in particular why it’s so much hotter than the surface of the Sun — temperatures there are several million degrees.
As you can imagine, it gets really, really hot near the Sun, so you’ve got to take special precautions. To perform its mission, the spacecraft and instruments will be protected from the Sun’s heat by a 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite shield, which will keep the four instrument suites designed to study magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and take pictures of the solar wind, all at room temperature.
Similar to how the Juno probe makes close passes over Jupiter’s radiation-fraught polar regions and then loops back out to safer ground, the Parker probe will make 24 orbits around the Sun, spending a relatively short amount of face to face time with our star. At closest approach, the spacecraft will be tearing along at about 430,000 mph, fast enough to get from Washington, D.C., to Tokyo in under a minute, and will temporarily become the fastest manmade object. The current speed record is held by Helios-B when it swung around the Sun at 156,600 mph (70 km/sec) on April 17, 1976.
Many of you saw last August’s total solar eclipse and marveled at the beauty of the corona, that luminous spider web of light around Moon’s blackened disk. When closest to the Sun at perihelion the Parker probe will fly to within 9 solar radii (4.5 solar diameters) of its surface. That’s just about where the edge of the furthest visual extent of the corona merged with the blue sky that fine day, and that’s where Parker will be!
SANTEE, SOUTH CAROLINA – Witnessing ‘Totality’ during Monday’s ‘Great American Solar Eclipse’ was a truly mesmerizing experience far beyond anything I imagined and something I will never forget -That’s a sentiment shared by millions upon millions of fellow gushing spectators.
I was stationed in Santee, South Carolina, near Lake Marion and close to the centerline of Totality, along with space journalist friend and colleague Jeff Seibert. And we could not have asked for clearer skies to enjoy this awesome natural event made possible by a uniquely rare confluence of miraculous celestial mechanics.
Check out our expanding gallery of personal photos and videos as well as many more gathered from friends and colleagues herein.
Totality was mesmerizing! Although I fully hoped to see a science spectacle (weather permitting) – I wasn’t really prepared for the majesty of the ‘coronal fire’ of Totality on display in the sky that started with what seemed like a startling electric flash – – The sun was alive far beyond anything I imagined beforehand. An out of body experience truly beyond my wildest dreams.
And we really lucked out with the weather – – as the odds of good weather are apparently better near Lake Marion, local residents told me. Just 15 miles south in Saint George, SC where I held a well attended eclipse outreach event at my hotel the night before, it was sadly socked in.
Despite a less than promising weather forecast, the threatening Carolina storm clouds obscuring our sun as we awoke and got our camera gear together Monday morning, fortunately scooted away.
Just in the nick of time the rainy gray breakfast clouds miraculously parted as eclipse time approached and almost completely disappeared by lunchtime – fully an hour prior to the eclipses beginning from our viewing location in Santee; near beautiful Lake Marion, South Carolina, which intersects the heavily traveled I-95 North/South Interstate highway corridor.
Like tens of millions of others, I’ve seen several partial solar eclipses, but this was my first total solar eclipse and it did not disappoint!
And there is just no comparison between seeing a partial and a total solar eclipse – sort of like a family before and after having a baby.
A few hundred excited people from across the East Coast including some families with kids had coincidentally gathered at our Santee location by the Water Park.
At Santee, SC, we enjoyed unobstructed totality for all 2 minutes, 34 seconds – very close to the longest possible duration of 2 min 43 seconds experienced by folks congregated in Carbondale, Illinois.
Overall our eclipse experience began at 1:14:55 p.m. EDT and concluded at 4:08:01 EDT – nearly three hours.
Totality started at 2:43:42 p.m. EDT and concluded at 2:46:16 p.m. EDT.
At lunchtime it was a boiling hot, skin stinging 95+ degrees F. But barely half an hour into the eclipse and with the sun perhaps only a third covered the area noticeably cooled and darkened and the sunburn was gone.
As the eclipse deepened, the sky really darkened to the point we almost needed a flashlight and it was downright comfortable temperature wise.
I’m over the Moon so to speak and still replaying the totality event in my mind from start to finish.
You can follow along by watching this thrilling solar eclipse video produced by Jeff Seibert, and listen to the cheering crowd to get a sense of our Carolina Totality adventure:
Video Caption: Total Solar eclipse from Santee, SC on August 21, 2017. We were 4.8 miles South of the Umbra center line, and had clear weather until just before last contact. Credit: Jeff Seibert
At Santee we were 87% into the umbra with a 70 mile wide (115 km) lunar shadow path width, at 136 feet elevation above sea level.
There is just nothing like ‘Totality’ in my experience as a research scientist and journalist – working with and seeing cool science and space hardware up close.
Totality is a natural wonder of the Universe and it was an electrifying event.
At the moment that totality commenced, day turned almost instantly to night as though someone threw a light switch.
I distinctly heard crackling sounds burst through the air, akin to a thunderbolt clap at that very moment – heralding our sudden jolt to totality.
Cheers broke out. Everyone and myself were so totally in awe of totality. And the sun’s brilliant while corona suddenly became visible, alive and in motion as the solar surface was completely blocked, hidden behind our moon. So I just stared at the stunning beauty, barely able to function as a photographer.
The planet Venus quickly and suddenly and incredibly popped out brilliantly from the darkness of the daytime sky. Some stars were also visible.
You absolutely must experience this incomparable wonder of nature with you own eyeballs.
Focus on the fleeting moment.
Because in a flash of just 2.5 minutes #Eclipse2017 was gone & done!
The all natural light switch had been turned back on by mother nature herself.
If only a replay or restart were possible – someone in the crowd yelled in glee. And we all thought the same way.
Totality, like rockets and science can be addictive in a very positive way.
Furthermore, we also saw the famed partial solar crescents reflecting through trees onto the ground during the partial eclipse phases.
We very luckily enjoyed virtually perfect weather and clear blue skies for the entirely of the eclipse – from first contact, through totality and the last limb of contact of Earth’s moon covering the sun.
Only a few scattered cloud patches dotted overhead at the start and rapidly exited.
And very happily we were not alone.
The Aug. 21 ‘Total Solar ‘Eclipse Across America’ was enjoyed by tens of millions more lucky spectators, including many friends lining the solar eclipses narrow path of Totality from coast to coast.
The 70-mile-wide (115 km) swath of the Moons shadow raced across America from Oregon to South Carolina in a thrilling event that became sort of a communal experience with all the explanatory news coverage foreshadowing what was to come.
Everyone in North America was able to witness at least a partial solar eclipse, weather permitting- and many did either on there own or at special solar eclipse events organized at towns and cities at museums, parks and open spaces across the country.
12 million people live directly in the path of 2017 solar eclipse totality as it passed through 14 states.
It was the first total solar eclipse visible from the United States since Feb. 26, 1979. And it was the first such coast to coast eclipse crossing the entire continental United States in 99 years since June 8, 1918 during World War 1.
The umbra (or dark inner shadow) of the Moon moved west to east at 3000 MPH in Oregon and 1500 MPH by the time it reached our location in South Carolina.
The 2017 solar eclipse began on the west coast with the lunar shadow entering the US near Lincoln City, Oregon at 9:05 PDT, with totality beginning at 10:15 PDT, according to a NASA description.
Totality ended along the US East Coast in the coastal city of Charleston, South Carolina at 2:48 p.m. EDT. The last remnants of lunar shadow departed at 4:09 p.m. EDT. Charleston is about an hour or so east of my viewing location in Santee and folks there enjoyed stunning views too.
For as long as I live the 2017 Solar Eclipse Totality will be burned into my mind!
“I’m pretty sure it was not nearly as epic as the total eclipse. It was fun to watch with teenagers though. I think what was unique to me was that I was capturing the equivalent of a crescent sun. Did it get dark here, of course not, but there were a few minutes where the Space Coast went a bit dim. The most fun was looking for the shadows,” writes Julia Bergeron from Port Canaveral, FL.
Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite Minotaur IV ORS-5, TDRS-M, CRS-12 and NASA and space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Learn more about the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse, upcoming Minotaur IV ORS-5 military launch on Aug. 25, recent ULA Atlas TDRS-M NASA comsat on Aug. 18, 2017 , SpaceX Dragon CRS-12 resupply launch to ISS on Aug. 14, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:
Aug 24-26: “2017 Total Solar Eclipse Minotaur IV ORS-5, TDRS-M NASA comsat, SpaceX CRS-12 resupply launches to the ISS, Intelsat35e, BulgariaSat 1 and NRO Spysat, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity and Opportunity explore Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings
“Astonished at the vivacity and brightness of the corona, and the contrast with the infinitely dark moon. Through binos it almost had me in tears,” writes John Gould from Red Bank, SC.
Mike Simmons is the President of Astronomer Without Borders. Mike is joining us today to discuss how AWB will be engaging the public and our schools both during and following the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. You can find the AWB Eclipse education program website here.
If you’d like to purchase eclipse glasses from AWB, all of the proceeds go to science education programs! Order here!
We use a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!
The WSH recently welcomed back Mathew Anderson, author of “Our Cosmic Story,” to the show to discuss his recent update. He was kind enough to offer our viewers free electronic copies of his complete book as well as his standalone update. Complete information about how to get your copies will be available on the WSH webpage – just visit http://www.wsh-crew.net/cosmicstory for all the details.
If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!
We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page
Not many people get excited about a penumbral eclipse, but when it’s a deep one and the only lunar eclipse visible in North America this year, it’s worth a closer look. What’s more, this Friday’s eclipse happens during convenient, early-evening viewing hours. No getting up in the raw hours before dawn.
During a partial or total lunar eclipse, the full moon passes first through the Earth’s outer shadow, called the penumbra, before entering the dark, interior shadow or umbra. The penumbra is nowhere near as dark as the inner shadow because varying amounts of direct sunlight filter into it, diluting its duskiness.
To better understand this, picture yourself watching the eclipse from the center of the Moon’s disk (latitude 0°, longitude 0°). As you look past the Earth toward the Sun, you would see the Sun gradually covered or eclipsed by the Earth. Less sunlight would be available to illuminate the Moon, so your friends back on Earth would notice a gradual dimming of the Moon, very subtle at first but becoming more noticeable as the eclipse progressed.
As the Moon’s leading edge approached the penumbra-umbra border, the Sun would narrow to a glaring sliver along Earth’s limb for our lucky lunar observer. Back on Earth, we’d notice that the part of the Moon closest to the umbra looked strangely gray and dusky, but the entire lunar disk would still be plainly visible. That’s what we’ll see during Friday’s eclipse. The Moon will slide right up to the umbra and then roll by, never dipping its toes in its dark waters.
During a partial eclipse, the Moon keeps going into the umbra, where the Sun is completely blocked from view save for dash of red light refracted by the Earth’s atmosphere into what would otherwise be an inky black shadow. This eclipse, the Moon only flirts with the umbra.
Because the moon’s orbit is tilted about 5° from the plane of Earth’s orbit, it rarely lines up for a perfect bullseye total eclipse: Sun – Earth – Moon in a straight line in that order. Instead, the moon typically passes a little above or below (north or south) of the small, circle-shaped shadow cast by our planet, and no eclipse occurs. Or it clips the outer edge of the shadow and we see — you guessed it — a penumbral eclipse.
Earth’s shadow varies in size depending where you are in it. Standing on the ground during twilight, it can grow to cover the entire sky, but at the moon’s distance of 239,000 miles, the combined penumbra and umbra span just 2.5° of sky or about the width of your thumb held at arm’s length.
Because the Moon travels right up to the umbra during Friday’s eclipse, it will be well worth watching.The lower left or eastern half of the moon will appear obviously gray and blunted especially around maximum eclipse as it rises in the eastern sky that Friday evening over North and South America. I should mention here that the event is also visible from Europe, Africa, S. America and much of Asia.
For the U.S., the eastern half of the country gets the best views. Here are CSTand UTtimes for the different stages. To convert from CST, add an hour for Eastern, subtract one hour for Mountain and two hours for Pacific times. UT stands for Universal Time, which is essentially the same as Greenwich or “London” Time except when Daylight Saving Time is in effect:
Eclipse begins: 4:34 p.m. (22:34 p.m. UT) Maximum eclipse (moon deepest in shadow): 6:44 p.m. (00:43 UT Feb. 11) Eclipse ends: 8:53 p.m. (2:53 UT Feb. 11)
You can see that the eclipse plays out over more than 4 hours, though I don’t expect most of us will either be able or would want to devote that much time. Instead, give it an hour or so when the Moon is maximally in shadow from 6 to 7:30 p.m. CST; 7-8:30 EST; 5-6:30 p.m. MST and around moonrise Pacific time.
This should be a fine and obvious eclipse because around the time of maximum, the darkest part of the penumbra shades the dark, mare-rich northern hemisphere of the Moon. Dark plus dark equals extra dark! Good luck and clear skies!
One-one thou… That’s how long it takes for the International Space Station, traveling at over 17,000 mph (27,300 kph), to cross the face of the Full Moon. Only about a half second! To see it with your own eyes, you need to know exactly when and where to look. Full Moon is best, since it’s the biggest the moon can appear, but anything from a half-moon up and up will do.
The photo above was made by superimposing 13 separate images of the ISS passing in front of the Moon into one. Once the team knew when the pass would happen, they used a digital camera to fire a burst of exposures, capturing multiple moments of the silhouetted spacecraft.
The ISS transits the Full Moon in May 2016
The ISS is the largest structure in orbit, spanning the size of a football field, but at 250 miles (400 km) altitude, it only appears as big as a modest lunar crater. While taking a photo sequence demands careful planning, seeing a pass is bit easier. As you’d suspect, the chances of the space station lining up exactly with a small target like the Moon from any particular location is small. But the ISS Transit Findermakes the job simple.
Click on the link and fill in your local latitude, longitude and altitude or select from the Google maps link shown. You can always find your precise latitude and longitude at NASA’s Latitude/Longitude Finderand altitude at Google Maps Find Altitude. Next, set the time span of your Moon transit search (up to one month from the current date) and then how far you’re willing to drive to see the ISS fly in front of the Moon.
When you click Calculate, you’ll get a list of events with little diagrams showing where the ISS will pass in relation to the Moon and sun (yes, the calculator also does solar disk crossings!) from your location. Notice that most of the passes will be near misses. However, if you click on the Show on Map link, you’ll get a ground track of exactly where you will need to travel to see it squarely cross Moon or Sun. Times shown are your local time, not Universal or UT.
The map also includes Recalculate for this location link. Clicking that will show you a sketch of the ISS’ predicted path across the Moon from the centerline location along with other details. I checked my city, and while there are no lunar transits for the next month, there’s a very nice solar one visible just a few miles from my home on Feb. 8. Remember to use a safe solar filter if you plan on viewing one of these!
While you might attempt to see a transit of the ISS in binoculars, your best bet is with a telescope. Nothing fancy required, just about any size will do so long as it magnifies at least 30x to 40x. Timing is crucial. Like an occultation, when the moon hides a background star in an instant, you want to be on time and 100% present.
Make sure you’re set up and focused on the moon or sun (with filter) at least 5 minutes beforehand. Keep your cellphone handy. I’ve found the time displayed at least on my phone to be accurate. One minute before the anticipated transit, glue your eye to the eyepiece, relax and wait for the flyby. Expect something like a bird in silhouette to make a swift dash across the moon’s face. The video above will help you anticipate what to expect.
Even if you never go to the trouble of identifying a “direct hit”, you can still use the transit finder to compile a list of cool lunar close approaches that would make for great photos with just a camera and tripod.
The Transit Finder isn’t the only way to predict ISS flybys. Some observers also use the excellent satellite site, CalSky. Once you tell it your location, select the Lunar/Solar Disk Crossings and Occultations link for lots of information including times, diagrams of crossings, ground tracks and more.
I use Stellarium (above) to make nifty simulated paths and show me where the Moon will be in the sky at the time of the transit. When you’ve downloaded the free program, get the latest satellite orbital elements this way:
* Move you cursor to the lower left of the window and select the Configuration box
* Click the Plugins tab and scroll down to Satellites and click Configure and then Update
* Hover the cursor at the bottom of the screen for a visual menu. Slide over to the satellite icon and click it once for Satellite hints. The ISS will now be active.
* Set the clock and location (lower left again) for the precise time and location, then do a search for the Moon, and you’ll see the ISS path.
There you have it — lots of options. Or you can simply use the Transit Finder and call it a day! I hope you’ll soon be in the right place at the right time to see the space station pass in front of the Moon. Checking my usual haunts, I see that the space station will be returning next weekend (Jan. 27) to begin an approximately 3-week run of easily viewable evening passes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
From here on Earth, the Sun like a smooth ball of light. And prior to Galileo’s discovery of sunposts, astronomers even thought it was a perfect orb with no imperfections. However, thanks to improved instruments and many centuries of study, we know that the Sun is much like the planets of our Solar System.
In addition to imperfections on its surface, the Sun is also made up of several layers, each of which serves its own purpose. It’s this structure of the Sun that powers this massive engine that provides the planets with all the light and heat they receive. And here on Earth, it is what provides all life forms with the energy they need to thrive and survive.
If you could take the Sun apart, and stack up its various elements, you would find that the Sun is made of hydrogen (74%) and helium (about 24%). Astronomers consider anything heavier than helium to be a metal. The remaining amount of the Sun is made of iron, nickel, oxygen, silicon, sulfur, magnesium, carbon, neon, calcium and chromium. In fact, the Sun is 1% oxygen; and everything else comes out of that last 1%.
Where did these elements come from? The hydrogen and helium came from the Big Bang. In the early moments of the Universe, the first element, hydrogen, formed from the soup of elementary particles. The pressure and temperatures were still so intense that the entire Universe had the same conditions as the core of a star.
Hydrogen was fused into helium until the Universe cooled down enough that this reaction couldn’t happen any more. The ratios of hydrogen and helium that we see in the Universe today were created in those first few moments after the Big Bang. The other elements were created in other stars. Stars are constantly fusing hydrogen into helium in their cores.
Once the hydrogen in the core runs out, they switch to fusing heavier and heavier elements, like helium, lithium, oxygen. Most of the heavier metals we see in the Sun were formed in other stars at the end of their lives. The heaviest elements, like gold and uranium, were formed when stars many times more massive that our Sun detonated in supernova explosions.
In a fraction of a second, as a black hole was forming, elements were crushed together in the intense heat and pressure to form the heaviest elements. The explosion scattered these elements across the region, where they could contribute to the formation of new stars.
Our Sun is made up of elements left over from the Big Bang, elements formed from dying stars, and elements created in supernovae. That’s pretty amazing.
Although the Sun is mostly just a ball of hydrogen and helium, it’s actually broken up into distinct layers. The layers of the Sun are created because the temperatures and pressures increase as you move towards the center of the Sun. The hydrogen and helium behave differently under the changing conditions.
The Core: Let’s start at the innermost layer of the Sun, the core of the Sun. This is the very center of the Sun, where temperatures and pressures are so high that fusion can happen. The Sun is combining hydrogen into helium atoms, and this reaction gives off the light and heat that we see here on Earth. The density of the core is 150 times the density of water, and the temperatures are thought to be 13,600,000 degrees Kelvin.
Astronomers believe that the core of the Sun extends from the center out to about 0.2 solar radius. And within this region, temperatures and pressures are so high that hydrogen atoms are torn apart to form separate protons, neutrons and electrons. With all of these free floating particles, the Sun is able to reform them into atoms of helium.
This reaction is exothermic. That means that the reaction gives off a tremendous amount of heat – 3.89 x 1033 ergs of energy every second. The light pressure of all this energy streaming from the core of the Sun is what stops it from collapsing inward on itself.
Radiative Zone: The radiative zone of the Sun starts at the edge of the core of the Sun (0.2 solar radii), and extends up to about 0.7 radii. Within the radiative zone, the solar material is hot and dense enough that thermal radiation transfers the heat of the core outward through the Sun.
The core of the Sun is where nuclear fusion reactions are happening – protons are merged together to create atoms of helium. This reaction produces a tremendous amount of gamma radiation. These photons of energy are emitted, absorbed, and then emitted again by various particles in the radiative zone.
The path that photons take is called the “random walk”. Instead of going in a straight beam of light, they travel in a zigzag direction, eventually reaching the surface of the Sun. In fact, it can take a single photon upwards of 200,000 years to make the journey through the radiative zone of the Sun.
As they transfer from particle to particle, the photons lose energy. That’s a good thing, since we wouldn’t want only gamma radiation streaming from the Sun. Once these photons reach space, they take a mere 8 minutes to get to Earth.
Most stars will have radiative zones, but their size depends on the star’s size. Small stars will have much smaller radiative zones, and the convective zone will take up a larger portion of the star’s interior. The smallest stars might not have a radiative zone at all, with the convective zone reaching all the way down to the core. The largest stars would have the opposite situation, where the radiative zone reaches all the way up to the surface.
Convective Zone: Outside the radiative zone is another layer, called the convective zone, where heat from inside the Sun is carried up by columns of hot gas. Most stars have a convective zone. In the case of the Sun, it starts at around 70% of the Sun’s radius and goes to the outer surface (the photosphere).
Gas deeper inside the star is heated up so that it rises, like globs of wax in a lava lamp. As it gets to the surface, the gas loses some of its heat, cools down, and sinks back towards the center to pick up more heat. Another example would be a pot of boiling water on the stove.
The surface of the Sun looks granulated. These granules are the columns of hot gas that carry heat to the surface. They can be more than 1,000 km across, and typically last about 8 to 20 minutes before dissipating. Astronomers think that low mass stars, like red dwarfs, have a convective zone that goes all the way down to the core. Unlike the Sun, they don’t have a radiative zone at all.
Photosphere: The layer of the Sun that we can see from Earth is called the photosphere. Below the photosphere, the Sun becomes opaque to visible light, and astronomers have to use other methods to probe its interior. The temperature of the photosphere is about 6,000 Kelvin, and gives off the yellow-white light that we see.
Above the photosphere is the atmosphere of the Sun. Perhaps the most dramatic of these is the corona, which is visible during a total solar eclipse.
Below is a diagram of the Sun, originally developed by NASA for educational purposes.
Visible, IR and UV radiation – The light that we see coming from the Sun is visible, but if you close your eyes and just feel the warmth, that’s IR, or infrared radiation. And the light that gives you a sunburn is ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The Sun produces all of these wavelengths at the same time.
Photosphere 6000 K – The photosphere is the surface of the Sun. This is the region where light from the interior finally reaches space. The temperature is 6000 K, which is the same as 5,700 degrees C.
Photosphere 6000 K – The photosphere is the surface of the Sun. This is the region where light from the interior finally reaches space. The temperature is 6000 K, which is the same as 5,700 degrees C.
Radio emissions – In addition to visible, IR and UV, the Sun also gives off radio emissions, which can be detected by a radio telescope. These emissions rise and fall depending on the number of sunspots on the surface of the Sun.
Coronal Hole – These are regions on the Sun where the corona is cooler, darker and has less dense plasma.
2100000 – This is the temperature of the Sun’s radiative zone.
Convective zone/Turbulent convection – This is the region of the Sun where heat from the core is transferred through convection. Warm columns of plasma rise to the surface in columns, release their heat and then fall back down to heat up again.
Coronal loops – These are loops of plasma in the Sun’s atmosphere that follows magnetic flux lines. They look like big arches, stretching up from the surface of the Sun for hundreds of thousands of kilometers.
Core – The is the heart of the Sun, where the temperatures and pressures are so high that nuclear fusion reactions can happen. All of the energy coming from the Sun originates from the core.
14500000 K – The temperature of the core of the Sun.
Radiative Zone – The region of the Sun where energy can only be transferred through radiation. It can take a single photon 200,000 years to get from the core, through the radiative zone, out to the surface and into space.
Neutrinos – Neutrinos are nearly mass-less particles blasted out from the Sun as part of the fusion reactions. There are millions of neutrinos passing through your body every second, but they don’t interact, so you can’t feel them.
Chromospheric Flare – The Sun’s magnetic field can get twisted up and then snap into a different configuration. When this happens, there can be powerful X-ray flares emanating from the surface of the Sun.
Magnetic Field Loop – The Sun’s magnetic field extends out above its surface, and can be seen because hot plasma in the atmosphere follows the field lines.
Spot – A sunspot. These are areas on the Sun’s surface where the magnetic field lines pierce the surface of the Sun, and they’re relatively cooler than the surrounding areas.
Prominence – A bright feature that extends above the surface of the Sun, often in the shape of a loop.
Energetic particles – There can be energetic particles blasting off the surface of the Sun to create the solar wind. In solar storms, energetic protons can be accelerated to nearly the speed of light.
X-rays – In addition to the wavelengths we can see, there are invisible X-rays coming from the Sun, especially during flares. The Earth’s atmosphere protects us from this radiation.
Bright spots and short-lived magnetic regions – The surface of the Sun has many brighter and dimmer spots caused by changing temperature. The temperature changes from the constantly shifting magnetic field.
Yes, the Sun is like an onion. Peel back one layer and you’ll find many more. But in this case, each layers is responsible for a different function. And what they add to is a giant furnace and light source that keeps us living beings here on Earth warm and illuminated!
And be sure to enjoy this video from the NASA Goddard Center, titled “Snapshots from the Edge of the Sun”: