Scientists keep an eye on potential space weather flare-up
BOULDER, Colorado — From Earth, the sun appears as a constant circle of light, but when viewed in space a brilliant display of motion is revealed.
Flares that light up the galaxy and eruptions that can be as large as 30 times the Earth’s surface occur regularly. During the peak of the 11-year solar cycle, these events can happen several times a day.
The flares and eruptions are collectively known as space weather and although they create dazzling visuals in space, it isn’t just a harmless fireworks show for the galaxy. Each burst of energy can have a disrupting effect on systems we rely on every day.
With their headquarters next to the Rocky Mountains in the state of Colorado, a team of forecasters aims to minimize that impact.
“The Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) essentially watches the sun, watches for activity on the sun originating from sun spots,” explains Bob Rutledge, Forecast Office lead.
“That’s really where the magnetic fields of the sun poke through the surface and kind of hold that part of the surface in place allowing it to cool — that’s why it appears dark.”
Gas rolls up and down the sun’s outer layer, similar to the bubbles in boiling water. When the magnetic field around a sun spot breaks, magnetic energy explodes in the solar atmosphere like a pot boiling over.
The size and position of sun spots can give forecasters a clue as to when or where a solar flare may bubble up. They produce daily forecasts that are important to the industries most vulnerable.
“Space weather can have a variety of impacts across many different customer bases — commercial aviation, precision GPS use, power grid operations — all these are really critical,” says Rutledge.
The sun is currently at its “solar maximum” — the point in its cycle where it is at peak activity — but the SWPC says that activity is modest compared to recent cycles.
Nonetheless, last week the center reported that the sun had produced a “moderate-level” solar flare, which had “short-lived impacts to high frequency radio communications on the sunlit side of Earth.”
Solar flares can send blasts of radiation through space that can interfere with satellites and even harm astronauts during spacewalks.
“So when an eruption happens — when we have that flash of light, those radio waves — that takes eight minutes to get from the sun to the Earth. So as soon as we start the measurement, it’s already affecting the sunlit side of the Earth,” explains Rutledge.
Innovations in spacecraft by NASA are showing us some of the best images of the sun we’ve ever seen — giving us a clearer picture and hopefully a better understanding of space weather.
But there is still much mystery to the 4.5 billion-year-old star and the emissions that are blasted through space, so scientists and forecasters will continue to watch every movement.