The Sun Just Unleashed a Massive Explosion — at Mars

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NASA/ESA/SOHO

The Earth and Mars are currently on exact opposite sides of the sun — a celestial situation known as “Mars solar conjunction” — a time when we have no way of directly communicating with satellites and rovers at the Red Planet. So, when the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SoHO) spotted a huge (and I mean HUGE) bubble of superheated plasma expand from the solar disk earlier today (July 23), it either meant our nearest star had launched a vast coronal mass ejection directly at Earth or it had sent a CME in the exact opposite direction.

As another solar observatory — the STEREO-A spacecraft — currently has a partial view of the other side of the sun (it orbits ahead of Earth’s orbit, so it can see regions of the sun that are out of view from our perspective), we know that this CME didn’t emanate from the sun’s near side, it was actually launched away from us and Mars will be in for some choppy space weather very soon.

It appears the CME emanated from active region (AR) 2665, a region of intense magnetic activity exhibiting a large sunspot.

“If this explosion had occurred 2 weeks ago when the huge sunspot was facing Earth, we would be predicting strong geomagnetic storms in the days ahead,” writes Tony Phillips of Spaceweather.com.

CMEs are magnetic bubbles of solar plasma that are ejected at high speed into interplanetary space following a magnetic eruption in the lower corona (the sun’s lower atmosphere). From STEREO-A’s unique vantage point, it appears the CME detected by SoHO was triggered by a powerful solar flare that generated a flash of extreme-ultraviolet radiation (possibly even generating X-rays):

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Observation by STEREO-A of the flaring event that likely triggered today’s CME (NASA/STEREO)

When CMEs encounter Earth’s global magnetic field, the radiation environment surrounding our planet increases, posing a hazard for satellites and unprotected astronauts. In addition, if the conditions are right, geomagnetic storms may commence, creating bright aurorae at high latitudes. These storms can overload power grids on the ground, triggering mass blackouts. Predicting when these storms will occur is of paramount importance, so spacecraft such as SoHO, STEREO and others are constantly monitoring our star’s magnetic activity deep inside the corona and throughout the heliosphere.

Mars, however, is a very different beast to Earth in that it doesn’t have a strong global magnetosphere to shield against incoming energetic particles from the sun, which the incoming CME will be delivering very soon. As it lacks a magnetic field, this CME will continue to erode the planet’s thin atmosphere, stripping some of the gases into space. Eons of space weather erosion has removed most of the Martian atmosphere, whereas Earth’s magnetism keeps our atmospheric gases nicely contained.

When NASA and other space agencies check in with their Mars robots after Mars solar conjunction, it will be interesting to see if any recorded the space weather impacts of this particular CME.

h/t Spaceweather.com

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Want a Little Doom for Supper?

It can mean only one thing: John Cusack is revisiting his Con Air days.
It can mean only one thing: John Cusack is revisiting his Con Air days.

Tonight, our screens are being hijacked by Armageddon for two minutes between 10:45-11pm EDT, 9:45-10pm CDT, 8:45-9pm MDT and 10:45-11pm PDT.

No, Jon & Kate aren’t going to be screaming at each other (why do people find that pair interesting anyway?), the 2012 movie teaser campaign will go up a notch after Sony decided it would be awesome if they throw even more money at this over-hyped End Of The World advertising campaign. 2012 will, quite literally, be spewing its CGI glory across the majority of TV stations.

Although it’s probably pretty obvious by now that 2012 is a marketing opportunity rather than anything that might really happen, even after 18 months since my original No Doomsday in 2012 article, I still receive countless emails about the subject. Some emails are angry (how dare I give scientific reasons why Planet X is bunk!), others are weird, but the majority are from people who have a genuine concern that they (and their family) might not live past Dec. 21st, 2012.

So for those of you who think there might be an ounce of truth in the doomsday claims you see on the ‘net, or the ones depicted in tonight’s 2012 trailer, to borrow the advice from Alan Boyle at Cosmic Log:

DON’T PANIC!

And why shouldn’t you panic? The simplest reason not to panic is that ancient civilizations (like the Maya) have never, ever predicted anything with any degree of accuracy (and no, just because they apparently had good astronomy skills does not mean they did a good Nostradamus impression). Quite simply, time is a one-way street, you can never foretell anything before it happens. It is a physical impossibility.

If you still don’t believe me and think that the cosmos has marked us for death on Dec. 21st 2012, check out my other articles on the subject: Could Planet X make an appearance? No, nope, no way, nah. What about a solar-fried Earth? Balls, bullshitgrapefruit? Geomagnetic shift? Don’t even go there!

Still in doubt? Please, just read through EVERYTHING listed on Astroengine.com and the Universe Today about the topic.

Still buying doomsday crackpot literature? Well, I give up, you obviously want to see the world end. In this case, you might need professional help.

So, in short, ignore the 2012 viral campaign, but enjoy the movie for what it is, a disaster movie (and nothing more sinister). Will I be watching the movie? Hell yes, I want to be one of the first to review it!

Thanks to @_Kaden_ for the heads-up about tonight’s trailer…

“Knowing” How Solar Flares Don’t Work

 

knowing-flaming-earth

My wife turned to me as the credits rolled and asked, “Can you sue a production company for inaccurate science in a movie?

Hmmm… good point!” I said. “Unfortunately, though, I think it’s just called ‘being creative.’

But that got me thinking.

Knowing not very much

We’d just sat through the Nicholas Cage disaster movie Knowing after heavily criticising the last hour of magical solar flares, prophecies, silly religious undertones and complete disregard for a little thing called “science.” Oh, and there were aliens. Who would have guessed?!

I would say that apart from these things, it was actually a pretty good film… but I’d be lying. Well, a little. I was actually quite impressed by the assorted disaster CGI and the acting (I’m glad Rose Byrne is getting some big roles, as I think she rocked in Damages), but generally, I was disappointed. I think I would have enjoyed it more if the director Alex Proyas didn’t have such a contempt for asking a science advisor for… I dunno… “advice.”

In fact, I’m not even going to bother researching whether there was a science advisor in the production crew or not, because either a) the rest of the crew didn’t listen to him/her, b) the science advisor was lying about his/her credentials or, c) the science advisor was stoned/drunk while on the set. Therefore, in my mind, there wasn’t a science advisor involved in the making of this film.

Putting the stupid plot, aliens (double-facepalm), Byrne’s character’s death and no science advisor to one side, I still cannot understand how they got solar flares so wrong.

Kaboom! Whoooshhh! Fizzzzz….

I’m not being funny, it’s as if Proyas didn’t bother to Google “solar flare,” just to check to see how solar flares really do work. Hell, go to the self-explanatory HowStuffWorks.com and do a search for “Sun.” If either one of these things were done during pre-production, the science may actually have been plausable.

In a totally forgettable scene, right toward the end of the movie, the uber-scary solar flare waits to be blasted at Earth. Cage gets on the phone to his Dad saying something like, “You know it’s been pretty hot lately? Well, it’s about to get hotter!” That’s an epic solar fail already. For some reason, the world had gotten hotter and everyone just shrugged it off as a warm October? I’m thinking the Sun would need to be whacking out a huge increase in energy, and in which case, those bumbling solar physicists or the N.O.A.A. (or “EN-Oh-Ay-Ay” as the cast painstakingly spells out) might have noticed?

I’m a stickler for realism in movies — so this is just a personal gripe — but why weren’t real images of the Sun from SOHO, TRACE, Yohkoh, Hinode or STEREO (let alone the countless ground-based solar observatories) used at all through the entire film? Instead, we see a strange blob of CGI graphic, shimmering like a corporate logo on computer screens, being referred to as “our Sun.” I’m pretty sure NASA would have happily provided some real pictures of “our Sun” if they were asked.

Solar flares or cosmic death rays?

But the best part of the entire movie is when we get hit by the super flare. Oh dear lord. If you weren’t terrified of the Sun before, you will be now. That thing can incinerate cities! It’s radiation can penetrate the Earth a mile deep! Holy cow, it is like a trillion-billion atomic bombs all going off at the same time!!!

Ah, I stand corrected. The production crew obviously did Google “solar flare,” but only read the bit where it says “…an energy of 100 million Hiroshima bombs is released…” That’s big right? Yep, Earth is toast!

Unfortunately, they didn’t read the bit which points out that this huge explosion occurs deep in the solar corona, 100 million miles away (that’s a long way away).

Also, they didn’t realize that even the biggest solar flares and coronal mass ejections (the latter wasn’t mentioned once for the whole movie) are deflected by our planet’s magnetosphere and thick atmosphere.

The only science that was mentioned was that the “flare” would hit our atmosphere, destroying our ozone, thereby killing everything on the planet. In actuality, if you watched the “flare” hit Earth, I’m not sure what the ozone had to do with anything! That “flare” was like a cosmic ray gun, ripping through the atmosphere and the Empire State Building (oh yes, there was a lot of “famous landmark shredding”) as if it was a hot knife slicing butter. I don’t think we need to worry about excessive UV exposure due to lack of ozone when Earth is on fire.

There’s a list of things that annoyed me about this movie, and I don’t have the patience to mock all points, but after my wife wondered about suing a movie for bad science, I got to thinking what damage movies do to the perception of science. Oh yes, I know it’s sci-fi, I know it’s “just a movie,” I really do know that it’s not real, but wouldn’t it be fun to have a disaster flick that uses some real science for a change?

Real science is sexy too

As I was discussing with solar physicist Alex Young in last week’s filming of the Discovery Channel 2012 documentary, the real threat of a massive solar flare is actually pretty daunting. Granted, the Sun isn’t about to fire a cosmic death ray at us (and let’s face it, the Sun isn’t going to do anything any time soon), setting the planet on fire, but the real physics would be awesome if used in a disaster movie.

Just imagine if we had a disaster movie that depicted a solar flare erupting on the surface of the Sun, just above a highly active region of clustered sunspots and stressed coronal loops. We could see real movies of intense magnetic activity, and then suddenly the blinding burst of electromagnetic radiation. This flare could be the biggest the Earth has seen in modern times. The X-rays from this event knock out solar observatories, stunning the delicate light-collecting CCDs in their cameras. These X-rays immediately slam into our ionosphere, causing a massive surge of electrons, blocking global communications. This may have the knock-on effect of causing our atmosphere to heat up and swell, increasing the drag on our orbiting satellites.

In the first moment when we see the flare, already we see global problems. But this would only be a precursor to something a lot worse…

I can imagine the scene in the perfect movie: Our brave, and smart solar physicists are looking at live data streaming from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a multi-instrument telescope sitting between the Earth and the Sun. They see an expanding bubble growing well beyond the disk of the Sun. An alert is sent out to the authorities; a CME is coming… and it’s headed straight for us… it will hit in a few hours. Cue the countdown to CME impact (the suspense will be tangible, you won’t be moving from your seat). But wait! Communications are patchy, the ionosphere just blocked the satellite link to the US President… time is running out! Bruce Willis, our hero heliospheric expert, steps in and volunteers to notify the president himself (with a gun in his pocket, as there’s bound to be an assassin or terrorist out there to shoot at).

Planetary mayhem

But the fun would really begin when the CME slams into our magnetosphere. The magnetic field of the CME and that of the Earth’s hit in such a way that they reconnect, flooding the magnetosphere with high energy particles. The Earth’s Van Allen belts become supercharged like radioactive reservoirs. Satellites are overcome by high-energy particle impacts. Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) go offline. Communication satellites suffer drag and literally start to drop out of the sky.

And it gets worse!

The solar particles are deflected toward the poles, but the solar storm is so intense, particles penetrate deeper, generating vast aurorae at low latitudes. Even equatorial regions would see vast light shows as the particles flood in from space. Although amazingly beautiful, this has yet another side-effect, our atmosphere just became a huge conductor, where vast currents flow as electrojets. These electrojets generate massive magnetic fields, in turn overloading our national grids.

We now have no power and no means to communicate. We’re blind and unable to function. Governments are overwhelmed. Imagine Katrina-scale events all over the USA… all over the world. Who can help? Suddenly the $2 trillion damage estimate made by NASA seems too small… after all, we’d be plunged back into the dark ages, how can you count costs in dollars when a financial system no longer exists?

Conclusion

I don’t expect movies to be totally scientifically accurate. However, if you are basing an entire storyline on one harbinger of doom, at least get that right.

A solar flare will hit Earth in the future, there’s even a very good chance that we’ll get hit by a “big one” that could cause some collateral damage. In fact, if we are very unlucky, a large solar storm could be considered “civilization ending.” Yes, asteroids pose a clear and present danger to life on Earth, but don’t forget the Sun, it has a history of getting angry when the Earth is in the orbital firing line.

If that isn’t a great plot for a disaster movie, I don’t know what is.

Solar Cycle Prediction: “None of Our Models Were Totally Correct”

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Predicting space weather is not for the faint-hearted. Although the Sun appears to have a predictable and regular cycle of activity, the details are a lot more complex. So complex in fact, that the world’s greatest research institutions have to use the most powerful supercomputers on the planet to simulate the most basic of solar dynamics. Once we have a handle on how the Sun’s interior is driven, we can start making predictions about how the solar surface may look and act in the future. Space weather prediction requires a sophisticated understanding of the Sun, but even the best models are flawed.

Today, another solar cycle prediction has been released by the guys that brought us the “$2 trillion-worth of global damage if a solar storm hits us” valuation earlier this month. According to NOAA scientists sponsored by NASA, Solar Cycle 24 will peak in May 2013 with a below-average number of sunspots.

If our prediction is correct, Solar Cycle 24 will have a peak sunspot number of 90, the lowest of any cycle since 1928 when Solar Cycle 16 peaked at 78,” says Doug Biesecker of the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center.

Although this may be considered to be a “weak” solar maximum, the Sun still has the potential to generate some impressive flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Although I doubt we’ll see the record-breaking flares we saw in 2003 (pictured top), we might be hit by some impressive solar storms and auroral activity will certainly increase in Polar Regions. But just because the Sun will be more active, it doesn’t mean we will be struck by any big CMEs; space is a big place, we’d be (un)lucky to be staring directly down the solar flare barrel.

So, we have a new prediction and the solar models have been modified accordingly, but it is hard to understand why such tight constraints are being put on the time of solar maximum peak (one month in 2013) and the number of sunspots expected (90, or thereabouts). Yes, sunspot activity is increasing, but we are still seeing high-latitude sunspots from the previous cycle (Solar Cycle 23) pop up every now and again. This is normal, an overlap in cycles do occur, yet it surprises me that any definitive figures are being placed on a solar maximum that may or may not peak four years from now.

Ah, I see, it's obvious Solar Cycle 24 will look like that... is it really? (NOAA/NASA)
Tenuous link: Are you really happy with that prediction? (NOAA/NASA)

We are able to look at the history of sunspot number and we can see the cycles wax and wane, and we can pick out a cycle that most resembles the one we are going through now, but that doesn’t mean that particular cycle will happen this time around. Statistically-speaking, there’s a higher chance of a similar-looking cycle from the past happening in this 24th cycle, but predictions based on this premise are iffy to say the least.

Also, solar models are far from being complete, and many aspects of the physics behind the Sun’s internal dynamics are a mystery. The Sun really is acting strange, which is fascinating for solar physicists.

It turns out that none of our models were totally correct,” says Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA’s lead representative on the panel. “The sun is behaving in an unexpected and very interesting way.”

Personally, I think we should concentrate less on predicting when or how the next solar maximum presents itself. Solar models are not going to suddenly predict the nature of the solar cycle any more than we can predict terrestrial weather systems more than a few days in advance.

Using the atmospheric weather analogy, we know the seasons cycle as the year goes on, but there is no way we can say with any degree of certainty when the hottest day of the year is going to be, or which week will yield the most rain.

The same goes for our Sun. It is vastly complex and chaotic, a system we are only just beginning to understand. We need more observatories and more solar missions with advanced optics and spectrometers (and therefore a huge injection of funding, something solar physicists have always struggled without). Even then, I strongly doubt we’ll be able to predict exactly when the peak of the solar cycle is going to occur.

That said, space weather prediction is a very important science, but long-term forecasts don’t seem to be working, why keep on releasing new forecasts when the old one was based on the same physics anyway? Predicting an inactive, active or mediocre solar maximum only seems to cause alarm (although it is a great means to keep solar physics in the headlines, which is no bad thing in my books).

I suppose if you make enough predictions, eventually one will be correct in four years time. Perhaps there will be a peak of 90 sunspots by May 2013, who knows?

If you’re blindfolded, spun around and armed with an infinite supply of darts, you’ll eventually hit the board. Hell, you’ll probably even hit the bullseye

Source: NASA, special thanks to Jamie Rich for bringing this subject to my attention!