Is the next space weather season stormy or sunny?


The great news about the sun is that there is no great news. Astronomers congratulate you on living next to a “boring star”.

However, the inhabitants of the planet (if any) orbiting the nearby star Proxima Centauri, which is only 4.2 light years away, are not so lucky. In April, astronomers announced that a large eruption erupted from the surface in 2019. When the batteries of terrestrial and space telescopes were monitored for 7 seconds, the small star increased the output of UV radiation by 14,000 times. The most intense eruption ever seen in our galaxy.

It was more than a serious sunbathing area. “Humans on this planet will experience the worst times,” said Meredith McGregor, professor of astronomy at the University of Colorado and responsible for global observations.

Space weather of this magnitude can sterilize potentially habitable planets and bring bad news looking for life outside of this solar system. Even the mild spatial climate can disrupt already evolved and settled organisms. Sunspots and solar storms increase and decrease every 11 years, injecting energy that can endanger spaceships, astronauts and communication systems.

A new cycle of storms is about to begin, and astrophysicists are divided over how active or threatening it is. The Sun may be trying to set a record for the number of sunspots and severe storms, or it may be declining like the Maunder Minimum from 1645 to 1715, when the sunspots barely appeared. age.

“We live in a starry atmosphere,” says Scott McIntosh, a solar physicist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, often. “As a civilization, we take our stars for granted.”

Here, 150 million kilometers from the nearest star we call the Sun, we are and thrive on the brink of almost incomprehensible violence and complexity.

The Sun is a medium-sized star, a sphere of hot ionized gas with a diameter of 1 million miles. Its large interior spins faster than the exterior, and the outer layer spins faster at the equator than the poles. The result is a swelling nest of magnetic fields that appear like sunspots, which are exacerbated by the breaking up of the surface.

Every second, a thermonuclear reaction in the center of the sun burns 600 million tonnes of hydrogen for 596 million tonnes of helium. The missing 4 million tonnes turn into pure energy to pay off mortgages for all life on Earth, and possibly life elsewhere in the solar system. As energy is released from the Sun, it rises through a series of cold, dense layers of gas, eventually rising from a photosphere or surface area of ​​only 5700 Kelvin (9800 degrees Fahrenheit ) after 100,000 years. I go.

Taiyo pays these mortgages incredibly consistently. Experiments carried out in Italy a few years ago confirmed that our stars do not seem to have changed their energy production for at least 100,000 years, the time it takes to move away from the solar core. I did. Researchers can calculate the amount of energy produced by the Sun in real time by measuring elementary particles called neutrinos, which are produced by nuclear reactions inside the Sun, escape in seconds and reach Earth in just eight minutes. Is made. We found that this energy was generated 100,000 years ago and is consistent with currently detectable production.

The action doesn’t stop at the surface of the sun. Its familiar yellow photosphere boils like oatmeal, hit by a dark geomagnetic storm (the infamous sunspot), and crackles in a shower of electrical particles and radiation, stimulating space. Composed of a thin ultra-hot jet of charged gas, the corona, visible only during a solar eclipse, extends millions of kilometers from its luminous surface.

So far, it’s much smaller than the explosion seen at Proxima Centauri, but things can go wrong. When magnetic fields generated by swirling and charged gases appear on the surface of the Sun, they twist and become entangled. Eventually, they break apart and recombine in a loop, emitting a huge amount of radiation and charged particles. Explosive solar flares are more powerful than millions of hydrogen bombs.

Sometimes these flares blow the entire outer mass of the Sun into space in an event called a coronal mass ejection. The mother of all known solar storms occurred on September 1, 1859, when a mass of the Sun collided with Earth. Sparks flew telegraph systems in Europe and North America, causing a fire. The nocturnal dawn spread south to Hawaii and Cuba, bright enough for people to read newspapers in the light.

In 2012, coronal mass ejections barely missed Earth. A previous National Academy of Sciences study concluded that a direct hit from such a storm could cost around $ 2 trillion, shut down the power grid, and at least temporarily blind satellites. .. Forget about trying to use the Internet or local ATMs. Many people couldn’t even flush the toilet without the electricity to run the water pump, according to the report. “As a civilization, I think we’ll be screwed up,” said Dr. Macintosh.

Such storms are more likely to occur at the peak of the mysterious 11-year cycle of sunspot activity.

Recently, the sunspot cycle has weakened. In the last cycle, 101 spots were seen in the sun in 2014, when activity peaked. That’s well below the historical average of 160-240.

Last year, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commission of Scientists predicted that the next cycle would also be anemic, with sunspots peaking at around 115 in 2025.

However, Dr Macintosh and his colleagues made a drastically different prediction that there would be over 200 sunspots during rush hour. According to them, the 11-year solar cycle, based on an analysis of 140-year solar observations, is incompatible with the more basic 22-year solar cycle, named after its discoverer George Erie Hale. During this period, the sun’s magnetic field reverses its polarity and then returns.

Each cycle ends or begins when two magnetic bands moving from a high latitude opposite the Sun meet at the equator and annihilate each other. Each phase of the cycle lasts an average of 11 years, but can fluctuate.

Dr. Macintosh and his team found that the longer the cycle, the weaker the next cycle, and vice versa. The current cycle, which is the 24th day since record keeping began, shows all signs of ending in just over 10 years, which is shorter than average. It means that the next cycle is strong.

“Solar cycle 25 could be as large as the highest number since the record began,” Dr McIntosh said in late April. On Thursday, he and his team were still waiting for the “ignition” to begin. “It’s very, very close,” he wrote in an email. “We are watching very carefully.”

At stake, astronomers say they understand the health of our planet’s infrastructure, as well as the complex and violent processes that take place behind the relatively calm faces of the Sun. It is a pride that I feel.

“I think the problem with the sun is that it’s too close to the sun and there’s too much data on it,” Dr. Macintosh said. He called him the model destroyer. “Your model will eventually fail. That’s why weather forecasting is difficult, isn’t it? Our observations are very detailed, but we call it because I know it’s hard to get it right. “

Tony Phillips, the astronomer who runs the website, agreed via email. “In my experience, when a person really understands something, it’s easy to explain,” he said. “I am surprised that not many people in the solar cycle prediction industry can explain their favorite dynamo model in a way that the general public can” understand. “”

This situation reminded me of a blind man with the saying of trying to create an elephant theory. One of them focused only on the feel of the animal’s nose.

“Scott and Bob are standing to the side and screaming.” Hey, you ignore most elephants, “he says.” That is, the solar cycle has more elements than traditional models usually assume. Therefore, according to Scott, they are destined to misunderstand the big picture. “

Jay Pasachoff, a Williams College astronomer who has spent his life observing the corona during a solar eclipse, said he didn’t put much effort into such predictions. In an email, he explained the meeting which had had a “series of interesting stories” over the last cycle.

The next cycle is stronger than the average, the next cycle is weaker than the average, the next cycle is stronger or weaker than the average, and the next cycle is neither strong nor weaker than the average. “

“So my plan is to take a look,” he added.

Besides the potential dangers, it’s important to understand how the solar cycle actually works “if you want to understand the stars, from a purely human perspective,” said Dr McIntosh. It was. “And when you think about it, the Earth’s magnetic field is the main reason we live on Earth.”

As he pointed out, Mars has very little atmosphere or magnetic field. “If your planet doesn’t have a magnetic field, you can get all the atmosphere you want,” he said.

Indeed, astrophysicists believe that such a fate fell on Mars, which was once hotter and wetter than it is today.

Proxima Centauri, a small star known as the M-type ddd star, has at least two extrasolar planets, one of which is the size of Earth and close enough to live without radiation. Dr MacGregor gave little hope to life in such areas.

“Recent studies have shown that UV light can be very important in catalyzing life, converting complex molecules into amino acids and ultimately into single-celled organisms.” She said. “M d type stars are so small and cold that they don’t emit as much UV light except when flaring. Perhaps the star is burning to the point of igniting life, but destroying it quickly. There might be a sweet spot that just isn’t enough to make it happen! “

Is the next space weather season stormy or sunny?

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