The Sun as seen on Aug. 6th 2008. Still no sunspots. It's like watching paint dry... (SOHO/MDI)
Wow, what an unremarkable few months the Sun is having. Yes it is going through its solar minimum and yes that means it’s going to be fairly quiet, but the total (and I mean total) lack of sunspots is beginning to get a little boring. Sometimes the Sun does this, it does something unpredicted, like generating historic X-ray flares after solar maximum (like in 2003) or being unseasonably quiet (like now). This is the big issue with solar physics; although we can study our nearest star in great depth, we still do not appreciate what drives the inner workings of the Sun. We don’t fully understand why its atmosphere (corona) is so hot, let alone the nature of the 11-year solar cycle.
So, when asked “what are your views on the current lack of sunspots?”, I have to remain vague and point out that any form of solar forecasting is not possible at this stage, and more work needs to be done when working out the nature of sunspot activity. But now, with the help of a fellow blogger, a paper has been brought to my attention that actually predicted there will be no sunspots by 2015. What makes this enthralling is that this dual-author paper was written in 2006… back when the Sun was winding down from a pretty ferocious Solar Cycle 23. Could their prediction be coming true?
Working on the LHC (CERN)
The LHC is set to go online in around two months time and the scientific world waits in anticipation for the first results. However, there are a few who are more concerned than excited for the LHC experiments. On Tuesday night, I was kindly asked to join the LHC debate with the prominent LHC critic, Walter Wagner on Captain Jack’s show Paranormal Radio. To be honest, I really enjoyed the open platform provided for me to ask Walter some questions about his forthcoming lawsuit against the US partners funding CERN. Mr Wagner is far from being a fantasist or “crank” (as I’ve seen unkindly written in some of the media), but his views are more in the realms of speculation, rather than being based on the actual physics predicted to come out of the LHC.
Today, science reporter David Fuller with the UK news channel ITN contacted me to say that he had covered Walter’s story in a news item for Channel 4. He put together a very balanced report that should allay any fears that micro black holes or strangelets could be produced by this awesome experiment in the search for the Higgs boson…
Reconstruction of a muon passing through ATLAS (CERN/LHC)
Hold on! ATLAS has already started detecting particles? Yes, indeed it has. Particle collisions don’t only happen inside particle accelerators such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC); they happen all the time in the Earth’s atmosphere. High energy protons (or larger ions) generated by the Sun or other cosmic phenomenon (such as a supernova) bathe local space, passing through matter and colliding with atoms and molecules. Should a natural collision event occur in our atmosphere, billions of particles cascade from the point of collision, creating an “air shower.” Muons are one product of this air shower (in fact, the only natural muon production processes known are cosmic ray collisions) and some have been captured, making a fast-dash across the sensors in the recently completed A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS (ATLAS for short) detector at the LHC. It’s unexpected observations like these that really excite me, especially when we are a (possible) few weeks away from the first injection of particles into the LHC…
The International Space Station Transits the Sun (© Martin Wagner)
Sometimes the NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) is just too hard to pass up. Yesterday’s APOD features our sunspot-less Sun with a strange shape in the lower left-hand side of the image. On closer inspection suddenly it becomes clear as to what we are looking at. It’s the International Space Station transiting the solar disk. Stunning…
The LHC at CERN (CERN)
I’ve been captivated by the commotion caused by this summer’s “switch on” of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland. Much of the last few month have been focused around a lawsuit that Walter Wagner filed in Honolulu, Hawaii four months ago.
Tonight, Walter Wagner will be talking live with Captain Jack on Paranormal Radio (WPRT Radio) to discuss his concerns for the particle accelerator. Kudos to Wagner for appearing live to defend his views on the subject. In an added twist, I’ve been invited to join in with the debate. The live show begins at 9pm Eastern Time (Wagner will be on the show starting at 10pm EST), airing over Seattle and Chicago (I think!) and transmitted over the internet.
The disk of the Sun as viewed by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO/MDI)
As you can see, the Sun is keeping quiet, devoid of sunspots. As the world awaits an increase in solar activity to celebrate the onset of a new solar cycle, our closest star keeps a blank face and keeps us guessing. This most recent image was taken today by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) Michelson Doppler Imager (MDI) instrument. MDI measures plasma velocity and magnetic field strength at the top of the convection zone, so it is an invaluable sunspot detector. Sunspots are a good indicator about how active the Sun is, as when the magnetic field becomes stressed and twisted, it is forced from the convection zone, through the photosphere, chromosphere and high into the corona. These protrusions then fill with plasma and glow as coronal loops. The more magnetic activity there is, more sunspots appear. But, it would seem, the Sun remains magnetically inactive seven months since the beginning of Solar Cycle 24…
The termination shock, the point at which the interstellar medium interacts with the heliosphere (NASA)
The Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) is set for launch in October and it will carry out some pretty cool science when in space. Orbiting Earth 200,000 miles away, IBEX will be on the lookout for tiny, but significant particles originating from the edge of our solar system. Why? It turns out these neutral atoms will provide information on the location and characteristics of the point at which the Solar System’s edge mixes with the tenuous gas between the stars. So how are they generated? How do we know they originate from the termination shock?