Well guys it’s that time of the decade again – unlike here in Las Cruces the space weather gets hotter, the big spicy orb we call the sun gets fiery, and the flow of protons intensifies. . That’s right, the solar maximum is almost upon us again!
You might be thinking, âSean, what are you talking about? Well, if it is true that, as one great philosopher remarked, “in space, no one can hear you scream”, that does not mean that space is empty. It really is not. Space, especially in a solar system like ours, is full of, well, stuff! Some of these substances are plasma, a super hot gas that our sun constantly rejects from its surface as part of its continuous explosion of 4.5 billion years. The sun loses about 6 million tonnes of matter every second of every day. It sounds like a lot, but remember, the space is quite big and the sun is very big. By the time it reaches Earth it is quite spread out and it is moving very quickly. It is a form of particle radiation, small pieces of matter moving quickly, and is responsible for the auroras visible near the poles.
Much of the rest of interplanetary space is actually electromagnetic radiation, sometimes referred to as “light.” All light, from radio waves to visible light from your x-ray lamp, are forms of electromagnetic radiation. Most are harmless to us (like radio waves), but if you’ve ever had a bad sunburn (like me), you know it’s not all so benign.
Together, plasma and radiation make up what we call space weather – and the forecast certainly looks interesting.
Fortunately for us and our continued existence, Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field are capable enough to shield us from both particles and electromagnetic radiation, trapping most particles in wide bands (called Van Allen belts) and blocking most harmful electromagnetic radiation with our handyman vibe.
Unfortunately for us, we cannot rely on the sun to be beautiful and wise at all times. In fact, we can only really count on him to be good about half the time, which is still better than your average toddler or teenager (even if the sun is definitely middle aged). Our sun undergoes an 11-year solar activity cycle. In the middle of this cycle (called solar maximum), solar flares that have a chance of rejecting above-average amount of plasma and radiation are common, while at the edges of the cycle (solar minimum), these flares are quite common. rare.
Right now, we’re coming out of one of those lows, and the sun is, as expected, becoming more and more active, with daily solar flares or more over the past month. One of these eruptions, on October 28, was just large enough to qualify as Class X, the largest of the classifications of eruptions, and it caused the sun to project a cloud of plasma larger than d habit (called mass ejection or CME) that swept across the Earth from October 30 to 31. It’s okay if you haven’t noticed. You didn’t really have a reason to – it’s extremely rare for one of these events to affect us in a way the average person would notice. If you are in Canada, you may notice radio interference and an aurora. But that’s generally the extent of it here on Earth. In space, however, things are different. Our satellites and astronauts are not protected by our atmosphere and are much closer to the radiation bands I mentioned. A very significant event (like the geomagnetic storm of March 1989) could send astronauts rushing to radiation-protected compartments and see satellite operators frantically restarting their equipment.
The story continues under the graphic and the legend.
Legend: One of the first major eruptions of the new solar cycle, which occurred on October 28, 2021, as seen in ultraviolet light from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. The energy released by these events is equivalent to approximately one billion hydrogen bombs. (Courtesy of NASA / SDO and the AIA, EVE and HMI science teams)
While it certainly isn’t the biggest eruption, nor the most powerful CME, the October 28 eruption was one of the first big eruptions in our new solar cycle, one of many to come. You will likely hear of more of these events over the next five years or so, some larger and some smaller. So the next time you watch the sunset, listen to the radio, or fly on a commercial airliner, just remember how much protection our beautiful planet and all the scientists in places like NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center watching the sun. so you don’t have to *!
Sean Sellers is a PhD candidate in Astronomy at NMSU, studying solar astrophysics. He can be contacted at [email protected].
* Do not look directly at the sun with your fragile human eyes.
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