Tag Archives: solar storm

Space hurricane detected over the North Pole for the first time

Credit: Qing-he Zhang/ Shandong University.

For the first time, scientists have observed an extreme meteorological phenomenon called a “space hurricane”. The 1,000-kilometer-wide (620 miles) swirling mass of plasma recorded last week manifested for hours in Earth’s upper atmosphere, roughly 125 miles over the North Pole.

Scientists call the event a ‘space hurricane’ because its flows were strongest at the edge and decreased as you move toward the center, before picking up again on the other side, similarly to the airflow of a regular hurricane.

The space hurricane in Earth’s ionosphere was spinning anticlockwise, had multiple spiral arms, and last about eight hours before gradually breaking down. That’s about where the similarities with tropical hurricanes end, though.

Instead of water, space hurricanes rain down electrons. Like other space weather events, space hurricanes are caused by streams of plasma that hitch a ride on solar winds blown by the sun. Essentially, these are charged particles that are radially dispersed across space, and which can trigger magnetic storms and even the famous northern or southern lights when encountering Earth’s magnetic field.

“Until now, it was uncertain that space plasma hurricanes even existed, so to prove this with such a striking observation is incredible,” Mike Lockwood, a space scientist at the University of Reading, said in a statement.

“Tropical storms are associated with huge amounts of energy, and these space hurricanes must be created by unusually large and rapid transfer of solar wind energy and charged particles into the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Sometimes, this radiation can wreak havoc on satellites in orbit and, occasionally, can cause outages on the ground by disrupting power transformers and other pieces of infrastructure. This is why scientists routinely monitor the planet’s magnetic field for disturbances.

But it was only recently that researchers at the University of Reading, UK, Shandong University, China, and the University of California, Los Angeles, identified a space hurricane once they combed through data recorded by satellites in August 2014.

Using this data, the research team devised a 3D model of the storm, which allowed them to describe the space weather phenomenon in great detail. What was particularly surprising was that the space hurricane formed during a period of low geomagnetic activity, which suggests that this phenomenon may be more common.

The researchers plan on conducting follow-up studies to determine how frequent these storms are. These investigations could prove paramount to the monitoring of space weather, which can disrupt GPS systems.

The findings appeared in the journal Nature Communications.

Northern Lights.

Solar storm expected to bring northern lights to the U.S. tonight

There’s more bad weather forecasted for today, but this is the kind that we’ll all be thankful for — a minor solar storm will hit our planet on Wednesday, March 14. The event could amp up Earth’s auroras, making them visible from the northernmost parts of the U.S.

Northern Lights.

Image credits Svetlana Nesterova.

“Northern tier” states, such as Michigan or Maine, could be in for a treat as amped-up auroras (northern lights) could dance across the sky tonight, a product of a solar storm inbound towards Earth. The same storm could also induce some fluctuations in weaker power grids, and should only have a minor effect on our satellites, according to an alert issued from the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in Boulder, Colorado.

Researchers at the SWPC predict that the storm originates from a coronal hole in the sun, a region of lower energy and with a weaker magnetic field in the Sun’s outer layer. The particular conditions in this area allow high-speed, charged particles to shoot out into space, eventually finding their way to Earth. The storm will be a G1 class — making it a relatively minor event — and should last from Wednesday to Thursday, March 15.

Light it up

Auroras (known as ‘borealis’ over the North Pole and ‘australis’ over the South Pole) form from the interaction of these particles with the Earth’s magnetic field. Because they are charged, they are directly affected by the magnetic field when trying to pass through; similarly to how a pane of glass would ‘interact’ with you, should you try to pass through it.

We don’t fully understand the mechanisms behind aurora formation, but, in broad lines, the pretty colors are the result of ionization in the upper atmosphere. This, in turn, is produced by successive collisions of high-speed charged particles with atoms in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, causing them to shed electrons and protons (to ionize). Auroras can form on other planets with an atmosphere, through a similar process.

Particularly strong solar storms can trigger geomagnetic storms. Depending on its intensity, this could mean radio blackouts, fluctuations in power grids, maybe even with satellites in orbit.

Auroras or polar lights typically form near the (magnetic) poles, where the geomagnetic field is thinnest, and these charged particles can force their way through. Events such as solar storms widen the area on which auroras form because they put out more charged particles than usual — the deluge compresses Earth’s magnetic field, so some particles can push through at lower latitudes. In 1989, for example, a similar event made auroras form all the way down to Texas.

So fingers crossed, and you might get to enjoy one superb light show later today — nature’s treat.

This brave spacecraft will soon fly through the sun’s atmosphere

A car-sized spacecraft called the Parker Solar Probe is set to make history after it launches for an unprecedented destination: the sun. Touted as humanity’s first visit to a star, the spacecraft will fly through the sun’s outer atmosphere, known as the corona, getting seven times closer to the star’s surface than any spacecraft before it.

Artist impression of the Parker Solar Probe. Credit: NASA.

Artist impression of the Parker Solar Probe. Credit: NASA.

The one-of-a-kind spacecraft will employ a combination of in-situ measurements and imaging to probe the corona in unprecedented detail, revealing novel insights about the origin and evolution of the sun and the processes that govern it. In doing so, scientists will be able to improve their ability to forecast potentially hazardous solar storms and flares that can affect life and technology on Earth.

One such threat is represented by outbursts of coronal mass — huge bubbles of gas threaded with magnetic field lines that are ejected from the Sun over the course of several hours. When these strike the Earth, the consequences can be catastrophic. Some even claim a really powerful coronal mass ejection could fry most electronics on Earth or our communication satellite fleet up in orbit. Some of you might remember the 1989 Quebec incident, when the whole city had a blackout after the entire grid got fried, causing an estimated $2 billion Canadian in damage at the time. Besides blackouts, CMEs can also disrupt GPS signals and radio telecommunications.

Icarus 2.0

The probe will stay seven weeks inside a thermal vacuum chamber. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/Ed Whitman.

The probe will stay seven weeks inside a thermal vacuum chamber. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/Ed Whitman.

Parker will come as close as 3.9 million miles (6.3 million km) to our star’s surface, well within Mercury’s orbit, hurtling around the sun at approximately 430,000 mph (700,000 kph).

To achieve their goals, NASA engineers protected the spacecraft with a 4.5-inch-thick (11.4 cm) carbon-composite shield which can withstand temperatures in excess of 2,500°F (1,377 C). The same shield will also protect Parker and its delicate instruments from the frostbite of space. Soon enough, we’ll know if the spacecraft will be ready for its launch scheduled for some time in the July 31 – Aug.  19, 2018 window. That’s because last week one of the probe’s most important tests began.

Engineers placed Parker into a thermal vacuum chamber where, over the course of the seven weeks, it will experience various simulated challenges of the kind it will be subjected to during the mission. Inside the dark, 40-foot-tall chamber, the spacecraft will be chilled to -292°F (-180°C) to simulate the chilling embrace of space, then blasted with the kind of heat the probe will encounter at its closest approach to the sun. Under such extreme conditions, NASA engineers will test the probe’s instruments and equipment such as its solar panels, which flap open and close like a bird’s wings.

Once deemed ready, Parker will be launched from a Delta IV Heavy rocket towards Venus’ orbit, where it will perform seven flybys over nearly seven years to gradually bring its orbit closer to the sun and into its corona.

Scientists hope that the data beamed back by the probe will help answer some very puzzling questions about the sun and its quirky phenomena. For instance, solar scientist Eugene Parker — the man after whom the spacecraft is named —  first discovered in the 1950s that the solar wind of charged particles streaming from the corona moves faster than the speed of sound. To this day, we don’t know exactly why. Other mysteries which the probe might answer would be why the corona is hotter than the sun’s surface and how particles are ejected out of the corona and into space.

We’ve learned a lot about the sun in the last half-century but some things can never be settled unless you get close enough. Today’s technology finally makes it possible to send a spacecraft close enough to fly through the sun’s scorching atmosphere. Let’s just hope that, unlike Icarus, Parker’s wings won’t burn before it finishes its mission.

Solar flare

The sun goes through quasi-seasonal changes, a find that could help protect power grids back on Earth

Just like our own planet, the sun goes through seasonal changes in its activity, waxing and waning over the course of nearly two years driven by changes in newly discovered bands of strong magnetic fields. This variability helps shape the sun’s long-term 11 year cycle, yet again part of a longer cycle that lasts 22 days. Largely unpredictable, the sun constantly spews highly charged particles known as coronal mass ejections which can severely affect power grids, satellites and even airplane passengers. During its seasonal peaks, however, the sun is much more prone to solar storms, so understanding how this cyclic variability happens is key to averting a potential disaster.

Solar flare

Image: NASA

The researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) carefully studied data from NASA satellites, as well as  ground-based observatories. They found that magnetic bands (fluctuations in density of magnetic fields)  rise from the sun’s interior to the surface through a transition region known as the tachocline.

Scott McIntosh, lead author of the new study and director of NCAR’s High Altitude Observatory, likens magnetic bands in the sun’s atmosphere to the Earth’s jet stream, a river of air that encircles the planet.

“Much like Earth’s jet stream, whose warps and waves have had severe impact on our regional weather patterns in the past couple of winters, the bands on the Sun have very slow-moving waves that can expand and warp it too,” said co-author Robert Leamon, a scientist at Montana State University. “Sometimes this results in magnetic fields leaking from one band to the other. In other cases, the warp drags magnetic fields from deep in the solar interior, near the tachocline, and pushes them toward the surface.”

“These surges or ‘whomps’ as we have dubbed them, are responsible for over 95 percent of the large flares and CMEs–the ones that are really devastating,” McIntosh said.

First, the bands start off at the high latitudes and carry opposite magnetic polarity. When they’re far apart, sunspots  – and hence solar storms – are at their peak. When the bands migrate towards the equator, the instability terminates and new bands are born at the poles restarting the cycle.

Knowledge like this is fundamental to predicting space weather and taking preemptive measures against a potential solar onslaught. In 1979, solar flares knocked-out  long-distance telephone service across Illinois and, in 1989, another flare caused a nine-hour power outage in Quebec, leaving about 6 million people without electricity. New observations on models made on supercomputers will definitely render more insight, but if we’re really serious about studying the capricious sun then we might need to put in place a swarm of satellites. According to McIntosh, just like the current fleet hovering beyond Earth, such satellites could vastly advance solar weather models.

“If you understand what the patterns of solar activity are telling you, you’ll know whether we’re in the stormy phase or the quiet phase in each hemisphere,” McIntosh said. “If we can combine these pieces of information, forecast skill goes through the roof.”

coronal-mass-ejection

A giant hole in the Sun [Marvelous PHOTO]

coronal-mass-ejection

(c) NASA

If you’re a regular follower of NASA’s updates, you may have caught glimpses of some of the X-ray photos they report showing the surface of the sun. In these photos, dark specks of various sizes can be seen, which are actually what astronomers refer to as coronal holes. They may extend from the Sun’s equator to its poles, or even in some cases, from pole to pole. Recently, one of these coronal holes rotated towards Earth and chances had it that its one of the largest NASA astronomers have witnessed in a very long time. And what a sight it is!

Coronal holes aren’t your typical holes, mind you. A coronal hole, as the name implies, is a large region in the sun’s corona (the outer atmosphere of the sun), which is less dense and is cooler than its surrounds. This marvelous picture was taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory’s Atmospheric Imaging Assembly, and was made by combining three wavelengths of UV light.

Are coronal holes dangerous? The short answer would be no. Coronal holes are the sources of solar wind gusts that travel through space and hit Earth’s magnetic field, causing marvelous spectacles of light called auroras. However, the same coronal holes spew solar gusts that cause geomagnetic storms, interfering with satellite communications. In general, geomagnetic storms originating from a coronal hole have a gradual commencement and are not as severe as storms caused by coronal mass ejections, which usually have a sudden onset.

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft captured this photo recently showing massive sunspot groups on the sun's surface

Huge sunspots the size of the Earth warns of potential massive solar storms

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft captured this photo recently showing massive sunspot groups on the sun's surface

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft captured this photo recently showing massive sunspot groups on the sun's surface

Astronomers have observed a huge sunspot group on the surface of the sun, sized at more than 60,000 miles across, which might outbreak in a potentially hazardous solar storm.

From time to time, the sun spews huge energy releases called solar flares, which depending on their magnitude (the weakest are “C” class and the most powerful are “X” class) can cause radio blackouts and irremediable damage to satellites. Powerful sun flares are sometimes, however, joined by coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that cause geomagnetic storms on Earth. CMEs are what cause the beautiful northern and southern lights, or auroras, but they can also inflict catastrophic events. Coronal mass ejections are caused when the magnetic field in the sun’s atmosphere gets disrupted and then the plasma, the sun’s hot ionized gas, erupts and send charged particles into space.

If the geomagnetic storm caused by the CMEs is big enough, it can cause a damaging extra electrical current to flow through the grid. Some of you might remember the 1989 Quebec incident, when the whole city was blackout after the entire grid got fried, causing an estimate $2 billion Canadian in damage at the time. Besides blackouts, CMEs can also disrupt GPS signals and radio telecommunications.

Both CMEs and sun flares most often sprout from active regions around sunspots.

AR 1476, the huge sunspot complex I’ve mentioned earlier, might just be a birthplace for havoc. Another sunspot group, albeit smaller, called AR 1471, already erupted Monday evening with a M1 flare – one of the least powerful.

“With at least four dark cores larger than Earth, AR 1476 sprawls more than 100,000 km from end to end, and makes an easy target for backyard solar telescopes,” the website Spaceweather.com reported Monday.

The sun’s activity naturally lowers and increases in its 11-year cycle – towards the end of the cycle, like it’s the case currently, the sun is most active. The current cycle, known as  Solar Cycle 24, is set to peak in 2013.

The most detailed photo of a Sun Spot to date captured by the Big Bear Solar Observatory

Now, that’s not Sauron’s eye. Pictured above is the most highly detailed photo of a sunspot ever taken at present date, captured and recently released by the Big Bear Solar Observatory, CA. The whole event was captured by Big Bear’s New Solar Telescope (NST), which has a resolution covering about 50 miles on the Sun’s surface.

This photo of a sunspot is now the most detailed ever obtained in visible light,” according to Ciel et l’Espace.   In September, the popular astronomy magazine will publish several more photos of the Sun taken with BBSO’s new adaptive optics system.

Scientists believe magnetic structures like sunspots are very important to understanding space weather.  Space weather, which originates in the Sun, can have dire consequences on Earth’s climate and environment.  A serious solar storm can disrupt power grids and communication, destroy satellites and even expose airline pilots, crew and passengers to radiation.  The NST data will be fundamental for future research in the field.

The day our Sun brought darkness

About 20 years ago, on March 13, 1989, the whole province of Quebec, Canada, suffered a blackout that by now has reached legendary proportions among astronomers and electrical engineers. Still, what made it reach this status wasn’t its proportions, but the fact that it was caused by the sun, or a solar storm to be more exact.

Three days earlier, astronomers noticed a powerful explosion on the sun, and just a few minutes after that, the Sun’s magnetic forces had already released a cloud of gas worth more than a billion tons. The cloud headed straight for Earth’s direction and at about 1.000.000 miles/hour, it went straight for us. It even jammed some radio frequencies, which most of Europe thought was the work of Russians, but they soon found out the true cause.

Two days and a half after that, the huge cloud filled with charged particles reached our planet’s magnetic field, with a violence hard to imagine; it caused ‘northern lights’ that could have been noticed all the way to Cuba and it created a magnetic disturbance of unbelievable intensity. Basically, this geomagnetic storm caused electrical currents beneath most of North America; these currents found a weakness in Quebec’s power grid, and just a couple of minutes after that, the whole province was left without electricity. In the 12 hour blackout to follow, people found themselves in darkened offices or homes, stuck in elevators, in cold homes, the whole 9 yards. But the problem wasn’t limited to that area. The whole US was really close to a nation wide blackout. For example New York Power lost 150 megawatts when Quebec went down and New England Power Pool lost 1,410 megawatts at the same moment. Also, power stations from accross the country had pretty much the same problem, but luckily for them, they had power to spare; just barely.

Today, the Quebec blackout remains a good example of how events taking place on the Sun can affect our day to day lives. The good thing is that storms this powerful take place quite rarely, and by learning and studying the problem more, we can also learn how to anticipate and prepare for this kind of events. Check out this amazing animation from NASA.