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  • richardmitnick 5:33 pm on January 10, 2021 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Coronal Holes During the Solar Maximum", , , , CME's - Coronal Mass Ejections, Coronal holes, , , , ,   

    From Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics: “Coronal Holes During the Solar Maximum” 

    Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

    From Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

    Sunspots were first seen by Galileo, and in the eighteenth century Rudolf Wolf concluded from his study of previous observations that there was a roughly eleven-year solar cycle of activity. In 1919 the astronomer George Ellery Hale found a new solar periodicity, the twenty-two year solar magnetic cycle which is composed of two eleven-year cycles and today is referred to as the Hale cycle. The eleven-year cycle is a complex dynamo process in which the Sun’s twisted magnetic fields flip to the opposite direction as the result of the combination of the Sun’s differential rotation and the convection in its atmosphere. Then, after a second cycle, the original polarity is recovered. The cycle is characterized by periodic changes in solar activity such as the number of sunspots and active regions (ensembles of looped magnetic structures); during the period of maximum activity the number of sunspots reaches a maximum. The number of coronal holes provides another measure of activity, a coronal hole being a darker appearing region of colder gas on the Sun’s surface. During maximum activity, coronal holes are found at low latitudes of the Sun with fewer of them at the polar regions.

    An ultraviolet image of the Sun showing a coronal hole – a dark region, seen here at the north pole of the Sun with NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Coronal holes are regions where the weakened magnetic field allows for a stronger solar wind to emerge.

    Solar winds-Sun’s coronal holes release solar winds towards Earth. National Geophysical Data Cantre.

    Astronomers have found correlations between coronal holes near the Sun’s equator and the eleven and twenty-two year solar cycles. Credit: NASA/SDO.


    Energetic events on the Sun like eruptions, flares, and coronal mass ejections peak at or near times of solar maximum.

    Solar flare. Credit NASA/ SDO.

    Coronal Mass Ejection. Credit ESA.

    At the same time some structures in the magnetic field weaken to zero strength and then increase but with the opposite sign. A particularly powerful solar wind can escape during these periods of weak magnetic fields and its charged particles can then travel into space and towards the Earth.

    Coronal holes are key structures that indicate these weakened fields. CfA astronomers Nishu Karna, Steven Saar, and Ed DeLuca and a team of colleagues performed a statistical study of the coronal holes near the equatorial region, and of active regions, during the maximum phase of the last four solar cycles spanning the years from 1979-2015.

    The scientists found a strong negative correlation between the numbers of equatorial coronal holes and active regions as well as statistically significant differences in the properties of the two eleven-year cycles of the Hale cycle. For example, they examined the changing distances (“pairings”) between equatorial coronal holes and active regions and find more of the close pairings during the peak of activity in one half of the Hale cycle…but not in the other. Most significantly, during these active times the solar wind flow and wind pressure also increase significantly. The results lead to important insights into how solar activity impacts the Earth and highlight important processes that are still not understood like the different behaviors of the two halfs of the Hale cycle.

    Science paper:
    A Study of Equatorial Coronal Holes during the Maximum Phase of Four Solar Cycles
    The Astrophysical Journal

    See the full article here .

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    The Center for Astrophysics combines the resources and research facilities of the Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory under a single director to pursue studies of those basic physical processes that determine the nature and evolution of the universe. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) is a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution, founded in 1890. The Harvard College Observatory (HCO), founded in 1839, is a research institution of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, and provides facilities and substantial other support for teaching activities of the Department of Astronomy.

  • richardmitnick 11:10 pm on December 3, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Voyager spacecraft detect new type of solar electron burst", , , , CME's - Coronal Mass Ejections, ,   

    From University of Iowa: “Voyager spacecraft detect new type of solar electron burst” 

    From University of Iowa

    NASA/Voyager 1.

    NASA/Voyager 2.

    Heliosphere-heliopause showing positions of two Voyager spacecraft. Credit: NASA.

    The Voyager spacecraft continue to make discoveries even as they travel through interstellar space. In a new study, University of Iowa physicists report on the Voyagers’ detection of cosmic ray electrons associated with eruptions from the sun—more than 14 billion miles away.

    Richard Lewis
    Office of Strategic Communication

    More than 40 years since they were launched, the Voyager spacecraft are still making discoveries.

    In a new study, a team of physicists led by the University of Iowa, report the first detection of bursts of cosmic ray electrons accelerated by shock waves originating from major eruptions on the sun. The detection, made by instruments onboard both the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft, occurred as the Voyagers continue their journey outward through interstellar space, making them the first craft to record this unique phenomena in the realm between stars.

    These newly detected electron bursts travel at nearly the speed of light, some 670 times faster than the shock waves that initially propelled them. The bursts were followed by plasma wave oscillations caused by lower-energy electrons arriving at the Voyagers’ instruments days later—and finally, in some cases, the shock wave itself as long as a month after that.

    The shock waves emanated from coronal mass ejections, which are expulsions of hot gas and energy that move outward from the sun at about 1 million mph. Even at that speed, it takes more than a year for the shock waves to reach the Voyager spacecraft, which have traveled further from the sun (more than 14 billion miles and counting) than any other human-made object.

    “What we see here, specifically, is a certain mechanism whereby when the shock wave first contacts the interstellar magnetic field lines passing through the spacecraft, it reflects and accelerates some of the cosmic ray electrons,” says Don Gurnett, professor emeritus in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the study’s corresponding author. “We have identified through the cosmic ray instruments these are electrons that were reflected and accelerated by interstellar shocks propagating outward from energetic solar events at the sun. That is a new mechanism.”

    The discovery could help physicists better understand the dynamics of shock waves and cosmic radiation that come from flare stars (which can vary in brightness briefly due to violent activity on their surface) and exploding stars. The physics of such phenomena would be important to consider when sending astronauts on extended lunar or Martian excursions, for instance, during which they would be exposed to concentrations of cosmic rays far exceeding what can be experienced on Earth.

    The physicists believe these electrons in the interstellar medium are reflected off of a strengthened magnetic field at the edge of the shock wave and subsequently accelerated by the motion of the shock wave. The reflected electrons then spiral along interstellar magnetic field lines, gaining speed as the distance between them and the shock increases.

    In a 2014 paper in the journal The Astrophysical Letters, physicists J.R. Jokipii and Jozsef Kota described theoretically how ions reflected from shock waves could be accelerated along interstellar magnetic field lines. The current study looks at bursts of electrons detected by the Voyager spacecraft that are thought to be accelerated by a similar process.

    “The idea that shock waves accelerate particles is not new,” Gurnett says. “It all has to do with how it works, the mechanism. And the fact we detected it in a new realm—the interstellar medium—which is much different than in the solar wind where similar processes have been observed. No one has seen it with an interstellar shock wave in a whole new pristine medium.”

    The findings were published online on Dec 3, 2020 in The Astronomical Journal.

    See the full article here.


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    The University of Iowa is a public research university in Iowa City, Iowa. Founded in 1847, it is the oldest and the second-largest university in the state. The University of Iowa is organized into 12 colleges offering more than 200 areas of study and seven professional degrees.

    On an urban 1,880-acre campus on the banks of the Iowa River, the University of Iowa is classified among “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity”. The university is best known for its programs in health care, law, and the fine arts, with programs ranking among the top 25 nationally in those areas. The university was the original developer of the Master of Fine Arts degree and it operates the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which has produced 17 of the university’s 46 Pulitzer Prize winners. Iowa is a member of the Association of American Universities, the Universities Research Association, and the Big Ten Academic Alliance.

    Among American universities, the University of Iowa was the first public university to open as coeducational, opened the first coeducational medical school, and opened the first Department of Religious Studies at a public university. The University of Iowa’s 33,000 students take part in nearly 500 student organizations. Iowa’s 22 varsity athletic teams, the Iowa Hawkeyes, compete in Division I of the NCAA and are members of the Big Ten Conference. The University of Iowa alumni network exceeds 250,000 graduates.

  • richardmitnick 9:27 am on August 29, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Carrington Event still provides warning of Sun’s potential 161 years later", At the time the link between auroral displays and the Sun was not yet known., CME's - Coronal Mass Ejections, Lloyd’s of London and the Atmospheric and Environmental Research agency in the United States estimated that a Carrington-class event impacting Earth today would cause between $0.6 and $2.6 trillion , , On 28 August 1859 a series of sunspots began to form on the surface of our stellar parent., The Carrington Event is officially known as SOL1859-09-01., The massive solar storm caused widespread disruption to electrical and Telegraph services and spawning auroras visible in the tropics., The same day that the sunspots appeared strong auroras began to dance around Earth’s magnetic lines.   

    From NASA Spaceflight: “Carrington Event still provides warning of Sun’s potential 161 years later” 

    NASA Spaceflight

    From NASA Spaceflight

    August 28, 2020
    Chris Gebhardt

    A Coronal Mass Ejection erupts from the Sun on 2 December 2002 as seen by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory — SOHO.


    On 28 August 1859, a series of sunspots began to form on the surface of our stellar parent. The sunspots quickly tangled the Sun’s magnetic field lines in their area and produced bright, observed solar flares and one — likely two — Coronal Mass Ejections, one major.

    The massive solar storm impacted our planet on 1-2 September 1859, causing widespread disruption to electrical and Telegraph services and spawning auroras visible in the tropics.

    Officially known as SOL1859-09-01, the Carrington Event as it has become known colloquially showcased for the first time the potentially disastrous relationship between the Sun’s energetic temperament and the nascent technology of the 19th century.

    It also resulted in the earliest observations of solar flares — by Richard Carrington (for whom the event is named) and Richard Hodgson — and was the event that made Carrington realize the relationship between geomagnetic storms and the Sun.

    Coming just a few months before the solar maximum of 1860, numerous sunspots began to appear on the surface of the Sun on 28 August 1859 and were observed by Richard Carrington, who produced detailed drawings of them as they appeared on 1 September 1859.

    The same day that the sunspots appeared, strong auroras began to dance around Earth’s magnetic lines, visible as far south as New England in North America. By 29 August, auroras were visible as far north as Queensland, Australia, in the Southern Hemisphere.

    Richard Carrington’s drawings of the sunspots of 1 September 1859, including notations (“A” and “B”) from where the solar flare erupted (“A”) and where it disappeared (“B”). Credit: American Scientist, Vol 95.

    At the time, the link between auroral displays and the Sun was not yet known, and it would be the Carrington Event of 1859 that would solidify the connection for scientists not only due to observations performed by Carrington and Hodgson but also because of a magnetic crochet (a sudden disturbance of the ionosphere by abnormally high ionization or plasma — now associated with solar flares and Coronal Mass Ejections) recorded by the Kew Observatory magnetometer in Scotland during the major event.

    On 1 September, Carrington and Hodgson were observing the Sun, investigating and mapping the locations, size, and shapes of the sunspots when, just before noon local time in England, they each independently became the first people to witness and record a solar flare.

    From the sunspot region, a sudden bright flash, described by Carrington as a “white light flare,” erupted from the solar photosphere. Carrington documented the flare’s precise location on the sunspots where it appeared as well as where it disappeared over the course of the 5 minute event.

    What neither could know at the moment is that a major Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) had just erupted from the surface of the Sun and was headed straight for Earth.

    The major CME event traversed the 150 million km distance between the Sun and Earth in just 17.6 hours, much faster than the multi-day period it usually takes CMEs to reach the distance of Earth’s orbit.

    Follow-up investigations over the last century and a half point to the auroral displays of the 28 and 29 August 1859 as the clue for why the 1 September CME traveled as fast as it did. It is now widely believed and accepted that a smaller CME erupted from the Sun in late-August and effectively cleared the path between Earth and the Sun of most of the solar wind plasma that would normally slow down a CME.

    By the time the 1 September event observed by Carrington and Hodgson began, conditions were perfect for the massive storm to race across the inner solar system and slam into Earth within just a few hours.

    When the CME arrived, the Kew Observatory’s magnetometer recorded the event as a magnetic crochet in the ionosphere. This observation, coupled with the solar flare, allowed Carrington to correctly draw the link — for the first time — between geomagnetic storms observed on Earth and the Sun’s activity.

    Upon impact, telegraph systems across Europe and North America, which took the brunt of the impact, failed. In some cases, telegraphs provided electric shocks to operators; in other cases, their lines sparked in populated areas and — in places — started fires.

    The event produced some of the brightest auroras ever recorded in history. People in New England were able to read the newspaper in the middle of the night without any additional light. Meanwhile, in Colorado, miners believed it was daybreak and began their morning routine.

    The auroras were so strong they were clearly observed throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, Hawaii, southern Japan, southern China, and as far south as Colombia near the equator in South America and as far north as Queensland, Australia near the equator in the Southern Hemisphere.

    The strength of the Carrington Event is now recognized in heliophysics as a specific class of CME and is named after Richard Carrington.

    Historical evidence in the form of Carbon-14 trapped and preserved in tree rings indicates that the previous, similarly energetic CME event to the one in 1859 occurred in 774 CE and that Carrington-class Earth impact events occur on average once every several millennia.

    ScienceCasts: Carrington-class CME Narrowly Misses Earth.

    Still, lower energy CMEs erupted from the Sun and impacted Earth in 1921, 1960, and 1989 — the latter of which caused widespread power outages throughout Quebec province in Canada. These three events are not considered to have been of Carrington-class strength.

    However, a Carrington-class superstorm did erupt from the Sun on 23 July 2012 and narrowly missed Earth by just nine days, providing a stark warning from our solar parent that it is only a matter of time before another Carrington-class event impacts Earth.

    Coming shortly after the 2012 near miss, researchers from Lloyd’s of London and the Atmospheric and Environmental Research agency in the United States estimated that a Carrington-class event impacting Earth today would cause between $0.6 and $2.6 trillion in damages to the United States alone and would cause widespread — if not global — electrical disruptions, blackouts, and damages to electrical grids.

    Cascading failures of electrical grids, especially in New England in the United States, are also particularly likely during a Carrington-class event. Power restoration estimates range anywhere from a weak to the least affected areas to more than a year to the hardest-hit regions.

    Electronic payment systems at grocery stores and gas stations would likely crash, electric vehicle charging stations — that rely on the power grid — would likely be unusable for some time, as would ATMs which rely on an internet and/or satellite link to verify account and cash disbursement information.

    The world’s heliophysics fleet of spacecraft that keep constant watch on the sun. Credit: NASA.

    Television signals from satellites would be majorly disrupted, and satellites, too, would experience disruptions to radio frequency communication, crippling GPS navigation.

    Planes flying over the oceans would likely experience navigation errors and communications blackouts as a result of the disrupted satellite network.

    Astronauts onboard the International Space Station would either seek shelter in one of the radiation-hardened modules of the outpost or, if enough time permitted and the CME event was significant enough, enter their Soyuz or U.S. crew vehicle and come home.

    The question of exactly how to best protect astronauts on the Moon or at destinations farther out in the solar system is an on-going discussion/effort.

    Unlike 1859, however, today, we have an international fleet — including the Solar Dynamics Orbiter, SOHO [above], the Parker Solar Probe, and the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Solar Orbiter — of vehicles constantly observing the Sun and seeking to understand the underlying mechanisms that generate sunspots, solar flares, and Coronal Mass Ejections, which while linked to one another do not automatically follow each other.


    NASA Parker Solar Probe Plus named to honor Pioneering Physicist Eugene Parker.

    ESA/NASA Solar Orbiter depiction.

    Understanding the underlying mechanisms that trigger CMEs and how severe they would be is a key driving force for heliophysicists. But even with the current fleet in space, all scientists can really do at this moment is provide — at best — a multi-day warning that a CME has occurred and is heading toward Earth.

    NASA | Comparing CMEs.

    Simply having a multi-day warning would give us time to shut down power stations and transformers, stop long-haul and transoceanic flights, and basically hunker down and wait for it to pass. The best we could do now is simply try to minimize the damage.

    It would take a large financial and time and workforce commitment to preemptively rebuild power grids and communications systems in a way that they could fully withstand a Carrington-class CME, and that is something governments around the world have shown little to no interest in doing.

    Still, the Parker Solar Probe from NASA is literally diving into the solar corona to try to unlock the mystery of how Coronal Mass Ejections form and accelerate to incredible velocities as they leave the Sun. What’s more, ESA’s Solar Orbiter mission is attempting to compliment that data by looking at the Sun and observing it from an orientation never before possible.

    But a harsh truth remains: 161 years after the Carrington Event, the world is still not prepared for a large-scale solar storm and what it would do to us.

    The nine day near miss of the 2012 Carrington-class event should have been a major wake-up call, especially given technological advancements and our dependence on it for everyday life.

    But it’s warning does not appear to have been heeded as well as it should have.

    See the full article here .


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    NASA Spaceflight , now in its eighth year of operations, is already the leading online news resource for everyone interested in space flight specific news, supplying our readership with the latest news, around the clock, with editors covering all the leading space faring nations.

    Breaking more exclusive space flight related news stories than any other site in its field, NASASpaceFlight.com is dedicated to expanding the public’s awareness and respect for the space flight industry, which in turn is reflected in the many thousands of space industry visitors to the site, ranging from NASA to Lockheed Martin, Boeing, United Space Alliance and commercial space flight arena.

    With a monthly readership of 500,000 visitors and growing, the site’s expansion has already seen articles being referenced and linked by major news networks such as MSNBC, CBS, The New York Times, Popular Science, but to name a few.

  • richardmitnick 2:45 pm on February 7, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Five things we’re going to learn from Europe’s Solar Orbiter mission", CME's - Coronal Mass Ejections, , , , , NASA Parker Solar Probe Plus, ,   

    From Horizon The EU Research and Innovation Magazine: “Five things we’re going to learn from Europe’s Solar Orbiter mission” 


    From Horizon The EU Research and Innovation Magazine

    ESA/NASA Solar Orbiter depiction

    07 February 2020
    Jonathan O’Callaghan

    At 23.03 (local time) on Sunday 9 February, Europe’s newest mission to study the sun is set to lift off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, US. Called Solar Orbiter, this European Space Agency (ESA) mission will travel to within the orbit of planet Mercury to study the sun like never before, returning stunning new images of its surface.

    Equipped with instruments and cameras, the decade-long mission is set to provide scientists with key information in their ongoing solar research. We spoke to three solar physicists about what the mission might teach us and the five unanswered questions about the sun it might finally help us solve.

    1. When solar eruptions are heading our way

    Solar Orbiter will reach a minimum distance of 0.28% of the Earth-sun distance throughout the course of its mission, which could last the rest of the 2020s. No other mission will have come closer to the sun, save for NASA’s ongoing Parker Solar Probe mission, which will reach just 0.04 times the Earth-sun distance.

    NASA Parker Solar Probe Plus named to honor Pioneering Physicist Eugene Parker

    Dr Emilia Kilpua from the University of Helsinki in Finland is the coordinator of a project called SolMAG, which is studying eruptions of plasma from the sun known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs).

    Coronal mass ejections – NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center-SDO


    She says this proximity, and a suite of cameras that Parker Solar Probe lacks, will give Solar Orbiter the chance to gather data that is significantly better than any spacecraft before it, helping us monitor CMEs.

    ‘One of the great things about Solar Orbiter is that it will cover a lot of different distances, so we can really capture these coronal mass ejections when they are evolving from the sun to Earth,’ she said. CMEs can cause space weather events on Earth, interfering with our satellites, so this could give us a better early-warning system for when they are heading our way.

    2. Why the sun blows a supersonic wind

    One of the major unanswered questions about the sun concerns its outer atmosphere, known as its corona. ‘It’s heated to (more than) a million degrees, and we currently don’t know why it’s so hot,’ said Dr Alexis Rouillard from the Institute for Research in Astrophysics and Planetology in Toulouse, France, the coordinator of a project studying solar wind called SLOW_SOURCE. ‘It’s (more than) 200 times the temperature of the surface of the sun.’

    ESA China Double Star mission continuous interaction between particles in the solar wind and Earth’s magnetic shield 2003-2007

    ESA China Smile solar wind and Earth’s magnetic shield – the magnetosphere spacecraft depiction

    Magnetosphere of Earth, original bitmap from NASA. SVG rendering by Aaron Kaase

    A consequence of this hot corona is that the sun’s atmosphere cannot be contained by its gravity, so it has a constant wind of particles blowing out into space, known as solar wind.

    This artist’s rendering shows a solar storm hitting Mars and stripping ions from the planet’s upper atmosphere. NASA/GSFC

    This wind blows at more than 250km per second, up to speeds of 800km per second, and we currently do not know how that wind is pushed outwards to supersonic speeds.

    Dr Rouillard is hoping to study the slower solar wind using Solar Orbiter, which may help us explain how stars like the sun create supersonic winds. “By getting closer to the sun we collect more (pristine) particles, he said. “Solar Orbiter will provide unprecedented measurements of the solar wind composition. (And) we will be able to develop models for how the wind (is pushed out) into space.”

    3. What its poles look like

    During the course of its mission, Solar Orbiter will make repeated encounters with the planet Venus. Each time it does, the angle of the spacecraft’s orbit will be slightly raised until it rises above the planets. If the mission is extended as hoped to 2030, it will reach an inclination of 33 degrees – giving us our first ever views of the sun’s poles.

    Aside from being fascinating, there will be some important science that can be done here. By measuring the sun’s magnetic fields at the poles, scientists hope to get a better understanding of how and why the sun goes through 11-year cycles of activity, culminating in a flip of its magnetic poles. They are set to flip again in the mid-2020s.

    ‘By understanding how the magnetic fields are distributed and evolve in these polar regions, we gain a new insight on the cycles that the sun is going through,’ said Dr Rouillard. ‘Every 11 years, the sun goes from a minimum activity state to a maximum activity state. By measuring from high latitudes, it will provide us with new insights on the cyclic evolution of (the sun’s) magnetic fields.’

    4. Why it has polar ‘crowns’

    Occasionally the sun erupts huge arm-like loops of material from its surface, which are known as prominences. They extend from its surface into the corona, but their formation is not quite understood. Solar Orbiter, however, will give us our most detailed look at them yet.

    ‘We’re going to have very intricate views of some of these active regions and their associated prominences,’ says Professor Rony Keppens from KU Leuven in Belgium, coordinator of a project called PROMINENT which is studying solar prominences. ‘It’s going to be possible to have more than several images per second. That means some of the dynamics that had not been seen before now are going to be visualised for the first time.’

    Some of the sun’s largest prominences come from near its poles, so by raising its inclination Solar Orbiter will give us a unique look at these phenomena. ‘They’re called polar crown prominences, because they are like crowns on the head of the sun,’ said Prof. Keppens. ‘They encircle the polar regions and they live for very long, weeks or months on end. The fact that Solar Orbiter is going to have first-hand views of the polar regions is going to be exciting, especially for studies of prominences.’

    5. How it controls the solar system

    By studying the sun with Solar Orbiter, scientists hope to better understand how its eruptions travel out into the solar system, creating a bubble of activity around the sun in our galaxy known as the heliosphere.

    NASA Heliosphere

    This can of course create space weather here on Earth, so studying it is important for our own planet.

    ‘One of the ideas we have is to take measurements of the solar magnetic field in active regions in the equatorial belt of the sun,’ said Professor Keppens. ‘We’re going to extrapolate that data into the corona, and then use simulations to try and mimic how some of these eruptions happen and progress out into the heliosphere.’

    Thus, Solar Orbiter will not just give us a better understanding of the sun itself, but also how it affects planets like Earth too. Alongside the first-ever images of the poles and the closest-ever images of its surface, Solar Orbiter will give us an unprecedented understanding of how the star we call home really works.

    The research in this article is funded by the European Research Council. Sharing encouraged.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 9:49 am on October 8, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Solar Spike Suggests a More Active Sun", CME's - Coronal Mass Ejections, , Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite 16 (GOES-16), Nobeyama Millimeter Array Radioheliograph, ,   

    From Eos: “Solar Spike Suggests a More Active Sun” 

    From AGU
    Eos news bloc

    From Eos

    12 September 2019
    Nola Taylor Redd

    Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite 16 (GOES-16) captured footage of the most extreme flare recorded in over a decade. Credit: NOAA/GOES

    NOAA GOES-16

    At about the same time the Sun was blowing off the largest flare measured in over a decade, the strength of the magnetic field in its atmosphere hit a record high.

    But that may not be abnormal. New research suggests that the Sun’s magnetic field may climb to levels of intensity stronger than currently predicted, a discovery that could have implications for the effects of solar weather on Earth’s technology and infrastructure.

    On 6 September 2017, solar astronomers identified a massive X9.3 flare exploding outward from a preexisting sunspot. X describes the most intense class of flare, while the associated number relates to its strength. Most flares are classified between 1 and 9.

    The entire area where the X9.3 flare took place had been classified as an active region, where the strongest large-scale magnetic fields are concentrated on the Sun. The Sun also released several other powerful solar flares during the same month, many of them stemming from the same area.

    “It was a very interesting active region,” said Gregory Fleishman, a heliophysicist at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark.

    Fleishman was part of a research team that captured measurements of the coronal magnetic field, a historically challenging part of the Sun to study. By probing the field in radio wavelengths and comparing their findings to historical observations, the team discovered that the coronal magnetic field may be more powerful than previously expected.

    The team’s findings, along with its technique, may allow researchers to improve understanding of what’s happening in the solar atmosphere and how it could affect Earth. Results were published in August in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

    “The magnetic field might be stronger than people have been thinking about,” Fleishman said. “There might be more energy to drive extreme [space] weather.”

    More Powerful Than Ever

    The Sun’s corona is the outermost layer in the solar atmosphere. Although it is farther away from the solar center than the photosphere, the bubbling layer of plasma from where sunspots arise, it is significantly hotter.

    The Sun’s corona is most easily visible during solar eclipses, and the coronal magnetic field is even more elusive. According to Alex Young, associate director for science in NASA’s Heliophysics Science Division at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., the infrared lines needed to measure the magnetic field are impeded by Earth’s temperature and atmosphere and are difficult to study even from space. Most infrared observations are taken by aircraft soaring above the terrestrial atmosphere during an eclipse.

    “It’s very difficult to measure magnetic fields in the corona,” Young said.

    Current models of the coronal magnetic field are based on observations of the photosphere. Young compares the limits of the model to a shag carpet. The photosphere is like the base, where the weave ties into the carpet. That’s the bulk of what scientists can probe. They can only make a guess about what’s happening at the corona, which Young compares to the surface of the carpet. Complicated physics make it difficult to model coronal processes.

    “If you don’t know the details about the kind of threads in the carpet, the kind of material, you can never exactly figure out what the shape of that shag carpet’s going to look like,” Young said.

    To overcome this problem, Fleishman and his colleagues turned to radio waves. As a local magnetic field increases in strength, it becomes brighter at higher radio frequencies. Using the radio telescope Nobeyama Radioheliograph, the researchers studied the Sun before and after the 6 September flare, a period of high solar activity, and were able to recover the magnetic field strength at the base of the corona.

    Nobeyama Millimeter Array Radioheliograph, located near Minamimaki, Nagano at an elevation of 1350m

    The Japanese instrument captured solar observations at higher frequencies than previously used, allowing for a more in-depth probing of coronal temperatures.

    They found that the coronal magnetic field reached 4,000 gauss, twice as strong as previously reported. Because the field appeared at the highest measurable frequency, it’s possible that the field’s magnetic flux density could be even stronger.

    In reviewing historical observations, the researchers found previous instances of high radio measurements that were made before the connection between radio waves and strong magnetic field strength was established. The finding suggests that such extreme fields may not be as rare as previously thought.

    That could be bad news for Earth.

    Occasionally, the Sun blows clouds of plasma known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs) from its surface. As the material moves through space, it can both harm astronauts and damage satellites. When CMEs or flares collide with Earth’s magnetic field, they can dump charged particles that spiral around the planet, not only creating beautiful auroral displays but also overcharging electrical grids.

    Understanding and predicting space weather events have become higher priorities in recent years, and the new study offers hope of improving both.

    “We can’t even begin to start thinking about predicting [space weather] until we can measure [coronal magnetic fields],” Young said.

    See the full article here .


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    Eos is the leading source for trustworthy news and perspectives about the Earth and space sciences and their impact. Its namesake is Eos, the Greek goddess of the dawn, who represents the light shed on understanding our planet and its environment in space by the Earth and space sciences.

  • richardmitnick 8:01 am on September 6, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Forecasting Solar Storms in Real Time", , CME Scoreboard, CME's - Coronal Mass Ejections, , ,   

    From Eos: “Forecasting Solar Storms in Real Time” 

    From AGU
    Eos news bloc

    From Eos

    30 August 2019
    Jenessa Duncombe

    Predicting when solar storms will hit Earth remains a tricky business. To help, scientists can now submit their forecasts of coronal mass ejections online as they unfold in real time.

    A coronal mass ejection (CME) blasts off from the Sun in these coronagraphs captured on 27 February 2000 by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory spacecraft. Credit: SOHO ESA & NASA


    The Sun routinely ejects clouds of gas and sends them hurtling through space at several thousand kilometers per hour. At least a few dozen times a year, those clouds head straight for Earth.

    These natural events, called coronal mass ejections (CMEs), crop up when the Sun’s magnetic field becomes tangled and, in righting itself, releases a swarm of charged particles called superheated plasma. Sent at just the right angle toward Earth, these plasma clouds can wreak havoc on our electrical grids, satellites, and oil and gas pipelines.

    Quebec, Canada, for instance, experienced a blackout related to a solar storm on a winter night in 1989. The province went black after a solar storm sent an electric charge into the ground that shorted the electrical power grid. The outage lasted 12 hours, stranding people in elevators and pedestrian tunnels and closing down airports, schools, and businesses.

    Solar storms can threaten our communication and navigation infrastructure. In the past, solar storms interrupted telegraph messages, and future storms could threaten our cellphones, GPS capabilities, and spacecraft.

    With the right kind of warning, utility operators, space crews, and communications personnel can prepare and steer clear of certain activities during solar storms. But once a CME event is spotted leaving the Sun, our best models struggle to forecast when exactly it will arrive.

    To improve forecasts, a group of scientists is taking a community approach: What if researchers working on CME models around the world could post their forecasts publicly, in real time, before the CME reaches Earth?

    The CME Scoreboard, run by the Community Coordinated Modeling Center at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, does just that. The online portal with 159 registered users acts as a live feed of CME predictions heading for Earth. The portal gives scientists a simple way to compare forecasts, and the log of past predictions presents a valuable data set to assess forecasters’ accuracy and precision.

    Keeping Score

    The AGU Grand Challenges Centennial Collection features the major questions faced by science today. Editors of Space Weather identified CME predictions as one of them, calling the ability to provide them “essential for our society [Space Weather].”

    CME forecasting still lags behind our capabilities to forecast weather systems here on Earth, and the paper highlights several reasons why. Leila Mays, coauthor on the paper and science lead for the CME Scoreboard at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, said that CME forecasts are lacking in two key areas: Measurements of solar activity are sparse, and the exact physical details driving the Sun are still unclear.

    Despite the need for improvement, people on Earth still rely on CME forecasts, and scientists have myriad ways to supply them. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the United Kingdom’s Met Office both release publicly available CME predictions, and individual research groups build their models from scratch. Forecasting models range from data-driven empirical models to physics-based, equation-driven models.

    The models operate independently, perhaps using unique parameters or data inputs, but they all strive for a shared goal: to determine when a CME, or CME’s shock wave, will impact Earth.

    The CME Scoreboard serves as a repository for a wide range of these models. Mays said that scientists tracking solar activity will notice when a CME event explodes from the surface of the Sun, setting down a ticking clock for when the plasma will hit Earth (or miss it altogether). This sets off a flurry of activity, with scientists running their models with parameters from the most recent eruption, including the plasma’s speed, direction, and size. With the numbers crunched, they post their best guess and wait to see what unfolds.

    Ground Truth

    Since the CME Scoreboard’s inception in 2013, scientists have posted 814 arrival time predictions. Some predictions narrowly miss the mark, skirting the real arrival time of the CME by a mere hour or two. But others are days away, trailing the arrival by 30 or more hours.

    Mays said that the forecasts come from over a hundred users and represent 26 unique prediction methods. She said that the interest in the portal has been strong, which she’s not surprised about. The scoreboard merely gives a platform for ad hoc discussions that researchers were already having, spread across listservs and email chains whenever a new CME would appear.

    Pete Riley, a senior research scientist at Predictive Science Inc., knew of the scoreboard but had never contributed. Looking at years of forecasts on the website, he decided to analyze the accuracy and precision of past predictions.

    “I felt like having knowledge in the field but not having a horse in the race, so to speak, I’d be able to do a fairly independent evaluation,” Riley told Eos.

    His study, published in Space Weather in 2018, is the first analysis of the scoreboard data. Riley and his collaborators compared the difference between the projected arrival times and the actual reported times for 32 models. The analysis showed that the forecasts, on average, predicted the CME arrival with a 10-hour error, and they had a standard deviation of 20 hours. Several models performed the best, he said, but only moderately so, and the few that submitted regularly over the 6 years of data analyzed didn’t seem to be improving their forecasts.

    The paper “serves as kind of a ground truth for where we are at currently,” Riley said, as well as laying the foundation for future analysis. Riley made the code accessible so that future forecasts can be tested against the group. Mays said that in the future, the scoreboard may use the information to create a list of automatically updating metrics.

    Although more work lies ahead, Riley said that the future looks bright for more accurate predictions. He points to new space missions that will help fill in blind spots, including NASA’s Parker Solar Probe and nanosatellites called CubeSats that individual research groups deploy.

    NASA Parker Solar Probe Plus named to honor Pioneering Physicist Eugene Parker

    “Space weather is becoming ever more important because as a society, we are so reliant on technology now,” Riley said. With the additional data, he said, “I think it’s promising that in the future we will be able to make predictions more accurate.”

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    Eos is the leading source for trustworthy news and perspectives about the Earth and space sciences and their impact. Its namesake is Eos, the Greek goddess of the dawn, who represents the light shed on understanding our planet and its environment in space by the Earth and space sciences.

  • richardmitnick 9:32 am on March 8, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Bernhard Kliem of the University of Potsdam in Germany and his colleagues scrutinized a CME recorded on May 13 2013 by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, But it was unclear how coronal mass ejections or CMEs get started, CME's - Coronal Mass Ejections, , , Over about half an hour the blobs shot upward and merged into a large flux rope which briefly arced over the solar surface before erupting into space., , Solar plasma eruptions are the sum of many parts a new look at a 2013 coronal mass ejection shows, , Solar scientists have long wondered what drives big bursts of plasma called coronal mass ejections. New analysis of an old eruption suggests the driving force might be merging magnetic blobs, That quick growth supports the idea that CMEs grow through magnetic reconnection, That speedy setup might make it more difficult to predict when CMEs are about to occur, The team led by Tingyu Gou and Rui Liu of the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, They found that before it erupted a vertical sheet of plasma split into blobs marking breaking and merging magnetic field lines   

    From Science News: “Merging magnetic blobs fuel the sun’s huge plasma eruptions” 

    From Science News

    March 7, 2019
    Lisa Grossman

    Before coronal mass ejections, plasma shoots up, breaks apart and then comes together again.

    BURSTING WITH PLASMA Solar scientists have long wondered what drives big bursts of plasma called coronal mass ejections. New analysis of an old eruption suggests the driving force might be merging magnetic blobs.

    Solar plasma eruptions are the sum of many parts, a new look at a 2013 coronal mass ejection shows.

    These bright, energetic bursts happen when loops of magnetism in the sun’s wispy atmosphere, or corona, suddenly snap and send plasma and charged particles hurtling through space (SN Online: 8/16/17).

    But it was unclear how coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, get started. One theory suggests that a twisted tube of magnetic field lines called a flux rope hangs out on the solar surface for hours or days before a sudden perturbation sends it expanding off the solar surface.

    Another idea is that the sun’s magnetic field lines are forced so close together that the lines break and recombine with each other. The energy of that magnetic reconnection forms a short-lived flux rope that quickly erupts.

    “We do not know which comes first,” the flux rope or the reconnection, says solar physicist Bernhard Kliem of the University of Potsdam in Germany.

    Kliem and his colleagues scrutinized a CME recorded on May 13, 2013, by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.


    They found that before it erupted, a vertical sheet of plasma split into blobs, marking breaking and merging magnetic field lines. Over about half an hour, the blobs shot upward and merged into a large flux rope, which briefly arced over the solar surface before erupting into space. That quick growth supports the idea that CMEs grow through magnetic reconnection, the team, led by Tingyu Gou and Rui Liu of the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, reports March 6 in Science Advances.

    “This was actually surprising, that this reconnection was rather fast,” Kliem says. That speedy setup might make it more difficult to predict when CMEs are about to occur. That’s too bad because, when aimed at Earth, these bursts cause auroras and can knock out power grids and damage satellites.

    A STAR’S CME IS BORN The sun’s coronal mass ejections seem to result from many small plasma blobs combining. In this video, enhanced data from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory shows a vertical sheet of plasma suddenly break into blobs at about 17 seconds. Shortly after, the blobs rearrange themselves into a loop, and the loop bursts off the sun’s surface. At 30 seconds, more distant observations from the SOHO telescope show the CME’s progress. (A second, unrelated CME erupts off the right side of the sun near the video’s end.)

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

  • richardmitnick 9:04 am on March 7, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , CME's - Coronal Mass Ejections, , , ,   

    From COSMOS Magazine: “Mechanics of coronal mass ejections revealed” 

    Cosmos Magazine bloc

    From COSMOS Magazine

    07 March 2019
    Lauren Fuge

    A coronal mass ejection captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory in September, 2017. NASA/SDO.


    An international team of astronomers has untangled new insight into the birth of coronal mass ejections, the most massive and destructive explosions from the sun.

    In a paper published in the journal Science Advances, a team led by Tingyu Gou from the University of Science and Technology of China was able to clearly observe the onset and evolution of a major solar eruption for the first time.

    From a distance the sun seems benevolent and life-giving, but on closer inspection it is seething with powerful fury. Its outer layer – the corona – is a hot and wildly energetic place that constantly sends out streams of charged particles in great gusts of solar wind.

    It also emits localised flashes known as flares, as well as enormous explosions of billions of tons of magnetised plasma called coronal mass ejections (CMEs).

    These eruptions could potentially have a big effect on Earth. CMEs can damage satellite electronics, kill astronauts on space walks, and cause magnetic storms that can disrupt electricity grids.

    Studying CMEs is key to improving the capability to forecast them, and yet, for decades, their origin and evolution have remained elusive.

    “The underlying physics is a disruption of the coronal magnetic field,” explains Bernhard Kliem, co-author on the paper, from the University of Potsdam in Germany.

    Such a disruption allows an expanding bubble of plasma – a CME – to build up, driving it and the magnetic field upwards. The “bubble” can tear off and erupt, often accompanied by solar flares.

    The magnetic field lines then fall back and combine with neighbouring lines to form a less-stressed field, creating the beautiful loops seen in many UV and X-ray images of the sun.

    “This breaking and re-closing process is called magnetic reconnection, and it is of great interest in plasma physics, astrophysics, and space physics,” says Kliem.

    NASA Magnetic reconnection, Credit: M. Aschwanden et al. (LMSAL), TRACE, NASA

    NASA TRACE spacecraft (1998-2010)

    But the reason why the coronal magnetic field is disturbed at all is a matter of continuing debate.

    “To many, an instability of the magnetic field is the primary reason,” says Kliem. “This requires the magnetic field to form a twisted flux tube, known as magnetic flux rope, where the energy to be released in the eruption can be stored.”

    The theory holds that turbulence causes the magnetic flux ropes to become tangled and unstable, and if they suddenly rearrange themselves in the process of magnetic reconnection, they can release the trapped energy and trigger a CME.

    Others in the field think that it’s the other way around – magnetic reconnection is the trigger that forms the flux rope in the first place.

    It’s a tricky question to tease out because flux ropes and reconnection are so intertwined. Recent studies [Nature] even suggest that there’s another layer of complexity: smaller magnetic loops called mini flux ropes, or plasmoids, which continuously form in a fractal-like fashion and may have a cascading influence on bigger events like a CME.

    To get a better handle on this complex process, the team observed the evolution of a CME that erupted on May 13, 2013. By combining multi-wavelength data from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) with modern analysis techniques, they were able to determine the correct sequence of events: that a magnetic reconnection in the solar corona formed the flux rope, which then became unstable and erupted.

    Specifically, they found that the CME bubble continuously evolved from mini flux ropes, bridging the gap between micro- and macro-scale dynamics and thus illuminating a complete evolutionary path of CMEs.

    The next step, Kliem says, is to understand another important phenomenon in the eruption process: a thin, elongated structure known as a “current sheet”, in which the mini flux ropes were formed.

    “We need to study when and where the coronal magnetic field forms such current sheets that can build up a flux rope, which then, in turn, can erupt to drive a solar eruption,” he concludes.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

  • richardmitnick 11:21 am on February 19, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: 24 radio telescopes from the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR), , , , CME's - Coronal Mass Ejections, , ,   

    From University of Helsinki via COSMOS: “Observations reveal new ‘shape’ for coronal mass ejections” 

    From University of Helsinki


    Cosmos Magazine bloc

    COSMOS Magazine

    19 February 2019
    Phil Dooley

    Radiation signatures produced by giant solar storms more complex than previously thought.

    An artist’s impression of a coronal mass ejection. LV4260/Getty Images

    Astronomers using one of the most sensitive arrays of radio telescopes in the world have caught a huge storm erupting on the sun and observed material flung from it at more than 3000 kilometres a second, a massive shockwave and phenomena known as herringbones.

    In the journal Nature Astronomy, Diana Morosan from the University of Helsinki in Finland and her colleagues report detailed observations of the huge storm, a magnetic eruption known as a coronal mass ejection (CME).

    Unlike the herringbones a biologist might find while dissecting, well, a herring, the team found a data-based version while dissecting the radio waves emitted during the violent event.

    The shape of the fish skeleton emerged when they plotted the frequencies of radio waves as the CME evolved. The spine is a band of emission at a constant frequency, while the vertical offshoot “bones” on either side were sudden short bursts of radiation at a much wider range of frequencies.

    Herringbones have been found in the sun’s radio-wave entrails before, but this is the first time that such a sensitive array of radio telescopes has recorded them. The detailed data enabled Morosan and colleagues for the first time to pin down the origin of the radiation bursts.

    To their surprise, the bones were being created in three different locations, on the sides of the CME.

    “I was very excited when I first saw the results, I didn’t know what to make of them,” Morosan says.

    As the CME erupted, the astronomers were already monitoring the sun, using 24 radio telescopes from the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) distributed around an area of about 320 hectares near the village of Exloo in The Netherlands.

    ASTRON LOFAR Radio Antenna Bank, Netherlands

    SKA LOFAR core (“superterp”) near Exloo, Netherlands

    “We had seen this really complicated active region – really big ugly sunspots, that had already produced three X-class flares, so we thought we should point LOFAR at it and see if it produces any other eruptions,” explains Morosan.

    A last minute request to the LOFAR director was rewarded with an eight-hour slot on the following Sunday, during which the active region erupted again, emitting X-rays so intense that it was classified as an X-class flare, the most extreme category.

    Flares are caused by turbulence in the plasma that makes up the sun. Plasma is gas that is so hot that the electrons begin to be stripped from the atoms, forming a mixture of charged particles. As it swirls around in the sun the charged particles create magnetic fields. When the turbulence rises the magnetic field lines can get contorted and unstable, a little like a tightly coiled and tangled spring.

    Sometimes the tangled magnetic field suddenly rearranges itself in a violent event called magnetic reconnection, a bit like a coiled spring breaking and thus releasing a lot of trapped energy. It is this energy that powers the flare and propels the plasma out into space to form the CME.

    “The CME is still connected to the solar atmosphere via the magnetic field, so it looks like a giant bubble expanding out,” Morosan says.

    The extreme energy in the CME – the second largest during the sun’s most recent 11-year cycle – accelerated matter away from the sun’s surface to over 3000 kilometres per second, or 1% of the speed of light.

    Because it was so fast the CME formed a shockwave as it travelled through the heliosphere – the atmosphere around the sun. Similar to the sonic boom created by a supersonic aircraft, the shockwave accelerated electrons to extreme speeds and caused them to emit radio waves that Morosan and her colleagues recorded.

    The exact frequency of the radio waves emitted by the electrons depends on the density of their environment. Close to the sun the photosphere density is higher, which creates higher frequency radio waves. The further the electrons are from the sun the lower the frequency of the radio emission.

    So the shape of the herringbones as a plot of frequencies shows where the accelerated electrons are in the sun’s atmosphere.

    The spine represents a constant frequency emission originating from electrons trapped in the shockwave. These escape in bursts from the shock and get funneled along the magnetic field lines on the surface of the CME bubble.

    Some bursts of electrons are funneled back towards the sun. These are the herringbone offshoots to higher frequency, while the ones that get funneled the other way, out into space, create offshoots to lower frequency.

    The sensitivity of the array of radio telescopes allowed the team to clearly identify three sources of herringbone radiation, all of them on the flanks of the CME, not at the front of it, as had been proposed.

    However, the success of the observation was cut short because the timeslot on the LOFAR array came to its end, while the CME was still in full swing.

    “We don’t know what happened after the flare peaked,” Morosan notes. “So we were lucky, and unlucky!”

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    U Helsinki main building

    University of Helsinki, Viikki campus focusing on biological sciences

    The University of Helsinki (Finnish: Helsingin yliopisto, Swedish: Helsingfors universitet, Latin: Universitas Helsingiensis, abbreviated UH) is a university located in Helsinki, Finland since 1829, but was founded in the city of Turku (in Swedish Åbo) in 1640 as the Royal Academy of Åbo, at that time part of the Swedish Empire. It is the oldest and largest university in Finland with the widest range of disciplines available. Around 36,500 students are currently enrolled in the degree programs of the university spread across 11 faculties and 11 research institutes.

    As of 1 August 2005, the university complies with the harmonized structure of the Europe-wide Bologna Process and offers Bachelor, Master, Licenciate, and Doctoral degrees. Admission to degree programmes is usually determined by entrance examinations, in the case of bachelor’s degrees, and by prior degree results, in the case of master and postgraduate degrees. Entrance is particularly selective (circa 15% of the yearly applicants are admitted). It has been ranked a top 100 university in the world according to the 2016 ARWU, QS and THE rankings.

    The university is bilingual, with teaching by law provided both in Finnish and Swedish. Since Swedish, albeit an official language of Finland, is a minority language, Finnish is by far the dominating language at the university. Teaching in English is extensive throughout the university at Master, Licentiate, and Doctoral levels, making it a de facto third language of instruction.

    Remaining true to its traditionally strong Humboldtian ethos, the University of Helsinki places heavy emphasis on high-quality teaching and research of a top international standard. It is a member of various prominent international university networks, such as Europaeum, UNICA, the Utrecht Network, and is a founding member of the League of European Research Universities.

  • richardmitnick 10:50 am on August 23, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Carrington Event of 1859, CME's - Coronal Mass Ejections, Earth’s protective magnetic field has undergone relatively rapid shifts in the past, , , Researchers find fast flip in Earth’s magnetic field   

    From ANU via EarthSky: “Researchers find fast flip in Earth’s magnetic field” 

    ANU Australian National University Bloc

    Australian National University




    August 22, 2018
    Deborah Byrd

    By studying the magnetic record left behind in earthly rocks, researchers found a magnetic field reversal – where magnetic north became magnetic south – lasting only 2 centuries.

    Artist’s concept of Earth’s magnetic field, which surrounds and protects our planet, and which sometimes flips. Image via NASA/Peter Reid, University of Edinburgh/astrobio.net.

    A research team led by scientists in Taiwan and China announced on August 21, 2018, that Earth’s protective magnetic field has undergone relatively rapid shifts in the past, including one lasting just two centuries.

    Magnetosphere of Earth, original bitmap from NASA. SVG rendering by Aaron Kaase

    That’s fast in contrast to the thousands of years thought to be needed for a magnetic pole reversal, an event whereby magnetic south becomes magnetic north and vice versa. Such an event might leave Earth with a substantially reduced magnetic field for some unknown period of time, exposing our world to dangerous effects from the sun. If it occurred in today’s world of ubiquitous electric power and global interconnected communications, a reduced magnetic field could cost us trillions of dollars. The peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published this new work on August 20.

    Co-author Andrew Roberts of Australian National University (ANU) said in a statement that Earth’s magnetic strength could decrease by about 90 percent during a magnetic reversal. He said:

    “Earth’s magnetic field, which has existed for at least 3.45 billion years, provides a shield from the direct impact of solar radiation.
    Even with Earth’s strong magnetic field today, we’re still susceptible to solar storms that can damage our electricity-based society.”

    Roberts contributed to the study via precise magnetic analysis and radiometric dating of a stalagmite from a cave in southwestern China. Via this study, he and his colleagues added to the known paleomagnetic record from 107,000 to 91,000 years ago. A close look at this 16,000-year-long data set revealed that, during this period, the polarity flipped within only a couple of centuries some 98,000 years ago. Roberts commented:

    “The record provides important insights into ancient magnetic field behavior, which has turned out to vary much more rapidly than previously thought.”

    As the researchers described it, the flip was nearly 30 times faster than a generally accepted time required for polarity flips and 10 times faster than the fastest known rate of change.

    Magnetic pole reversals are natural events, and earthly life has evolved for billions of years with them going on in the background. What’s different today is that humans have developed technologies susceptible to events on the sun. To give you an idea of how powerful the sun is, watch a bit of the video below, showing a July 19, 2012, eruption on the sun. The eruption produced a moderately powerful solar flare, exploding on the sun’s lower right hand limb, sending out light and radiation. It then produced a coronal mass ejection, or CME, which shot off to the right out into space. It’s the CMEs that are so dangerous to earthly technologies.

    As do so many discussions of this kind, the ANU statement about the new work harked back to what’s called the Carrington Event of 1859. It’s named for the British astronomer Richard Carrington, who spotted the preceding solar flare. It’s the largest-ever solar super-storm on record (but, remember, our human record doesn’t last very long in contrast to the millions of years of human existence). According to an article in Physics World in 2014:

    “This massive CME released … the equivalent to 10 billion Hiroshima bombs exploding at the same time. [It] hurled around a trillion kilograms [a million tons] of charged particles towards the Earth at speeds of up to 3,000 km/s [1900 miles/sec]. Its impact on the human population, though, was relatively benign as our electronic infrastructure at the time amounted to no more than about 200,000 kilometers [120,000 miles] of telegraph lines.”

    The Carrington Event took place long before our vast electric power grids and satellites in orbit. A more recent event – the biggest earthly effect from a solar storm in living memory – happened on March 13, 1989. A storm on the sun that day caused auroras that could be seen as far south as Florida and Texas. It caused some satellites in orbit to lose control temporarily, and – most significantly – it sparked an electrical collapse of the Hydro-Québec power grid, causing a widespread electrical blackout for about nine hours.

    And that is the issue. Events on the sun, and their accompanying CMEs, aren’t harmful to earthly life. After all, life on Earth has evolved for billions of years, as occasional solar super-storms took place. But these space weather events are harmful to human technologies, such as satellites and electrical grids.

    Boom! A CME lifts off from the sun’s surface to space. This image was obtained in 2001 by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and is via ESA and NASA.



    For the most part, our magnetic field protects us. With Earth’s magnetic field in place, you would need an exceedingly strong solar flare to create a Carrington Event. But if Earth’s magnetic field were diminished due to an ongoing magnetic field reversal, our technologies would be left vulnerable. Roberts commented:

    “Hopefully such an event is a long way in the future and we can develop future technologies to avoid huge damage, where possible, from such events.”

    I think we can and will! What do you think?

    Northern lights (aurora borealis) seen on Earth from orbit. The same events on the sun that cause these beautiful auroras have the potential to damage earthly electrical grids and satellites in orbit. Image via NASA/ESA.

    Bottom line: Researchers have learned that magnetic field reversals on Earth can happen on a relatively fast timescale. They have evidence for one that took place over only two centuries. Prior to this work, it was thought that magnetic reversals took thousands of years.

    ANU Campus

    ANU is a world-leading university in Australia’s capital city, Canberra. Our location points to our unique history, ties to the Australian Government and special standing as a resource for the Australian people.

    Our focus on research as an asset, and an approach to education, ensures our graduates are in demand the world-over for their abilities to understand, and apply vision and creativity to addressing complex contemporary challenges.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. “Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers,” she says.

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