Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Solar mystery solved

03.03.2011
The Sun has been in the news a lot lately because it's beginning to send out more flares and solar storms.

Its recent turmoil is particularly newsworthy because the Sun was very quiet for an unusually long time. Astronomers had a tough time explaining the extended solar minimum. New computer simulations imply that the Sun's long quiet spell resulted from changing flows of hot plasma within it.

"The Sun contains huge rivers of plasma similar to Earth's ocean currents," says Andres Munoz-Jaramillo, a visiting research fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). "Those plasma rivers affect solar activity in ways we're just beginning to understand."

The Sun is made of a fourth state of matter - plasma, in which negative electrons and positive ions flow freely. Flowing plasma creates magnetic fields, which lie at the core of solar activity like flares, eruptions, and sunspots.

Astronomers have known for decades that the Sun's activity rises and falls in a cycle that lasts 11 years on average. At its most active, called solar maximum, dark sunspots dot the Sun's surface and frequent eruptions send billions of tons of hot plasma into space. If the plasma hits Earth, it can disrupt communications and electrical grids and short out satellites.

During solar minimum, the Sun calms down and both sunspots and eruptions are rare. The effects on Earth, while less dramatic, are still significant. For example, Earth's outer atmosphere shrinks closer to the surface, meaning there is less drag on orbiting space junk. Also, the solar wind that blows through the solar system (and its associated magnetic field) weakens, allowing more cosmic rays to reach us from interstellar space.

The most recent solar minimum had an unusually long number of spotless days: 780 days during 2008-2010. In a typical solar minimum, the Sun goes spot-free for about 300 days, making the last minimum the longest since 1913.

"The last solar minimum had two key characteristics: a long period of no sunspots and a weak polar magnetic field," explains Munoz-Jaramillo. (A polar magnetic field is the magnetic field at the Sun's north and south poles.) "We have to explain both factors if we want to understand the solar minimum."

To study the problem, Munoz-Jaramillo used computer simulations to model the Sun's behavior over 210 activity cycles spanning some 2,000 years. He specifically looked at the role of the plasma rivers that circulate from the Sun's equator to higher latitudes. These currents flow much like Earth's ocean currents: rising at the equator, streaming toward the poles, then sinking and flowing back to the equator. At a typical speed of 40 miles per hour, it takes about 11 years to make one loop.

Munoz-Jaramillo and his colleagues discovered that the Sun's plasma rivers speed up and slow down like a malfunctioning conveyor belt. They find that a faster flow during the first half of the solar cycle, followed by a slower flow in the second half of the cycle, can lead to an extended solar minimum. The cause of the speed-up and slowdown likely involves a complicated feedback between the plasma flow and solar magnetic fields.

"It's like a production line - a slowdown puts 'distance' between the end of the last solar cycle and the start of the new one," says Munoz-Jaramillo.

The ultimate goal of studies like this is to predict upcoming solar maxima and minima - both their strength and timing. The team focused on simulating solar minima, and say that they can't forecast the next solar minimum (which is expected to occur in 2019) just yet.

"We can't predict how the flow of these plasma rivers will change," explains lead author Dibyendu Nandy (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Kolkata). "Instead, once we see how the flow is changing, we can predict the consequences."

Christine Pulliam | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.harvard.edu

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Breaking the optical bandwidth record of stable pulsed lasers
24.01.2017 | Institut national de la recherche scientifique - INRS

nachricht European XFEL prepares for user operation: Researchers can hand in first proposals for experiments
24.01.2017 | European XFEL GmbH

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Scientists spin artificial silk from whey protein

X-ray study throws light on key process for production

A Swedish-German team of researchers has cleared up a key process for the artificial production of silk. With the help of the intense X-rays from DESY's...

Im Focus: Quantum optical sensor for the first time tested in space – with a laser system from Berlin

For the first time ever, a cloud of ultra-cold atoms has been successfully created in space on board of a sounding rocket. The MAIUS mission demonstrates that quantum optical sensors can be operated even in harsh environments like space – a prerequi-site for finding answers to the most challenging questions of fundamental physics and an important innovation driver for everyday applications.

According to Albert Einstein's Equivalence Principle, all bodies are accelerated at the same rate by the Earth's gravity, regardless of their properties. This...

Im Focus: Traffic jam in empty space

New success for Konstanz physicists in studying the quantum vacuum

An important step towards a completely new experimental access to quantum physics has been made at University of Konstanz. The team of scientists headed by...

Im Focus: How gut bacteria can make us ill

HZI researchers decipher infection mechanisms of Yersinia and immune responses of the host

Yersiniae cause severe intestinal infections. Studies using Yersinia pseudotuberculosis as a model organism aim to elucidate the infection mechanisms of these...

Im Focus: Interfacial Superconductivity: Magnetic and superconducting order revealed simultaneously

Researchers from the University of Hamburg in Germany, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, have synthesized a new superconducting material by growing a few layers of an antiferromagnetic transition-metal chalcogenide on a bismuth-based topological insulator, both being non-superconducting materials.

While superconductivity and magnetism are generally believed to be mutually exclusive, surprisingly, in this new material, superconducting correlations...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Sustainable Water use in Agriculture in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

19.01.2017 | Event News

12V, 48V, high-voltage – trends in E/E automotive architecture

10.01.2017 | Event News

2nd Conference on Non-Textual Information on 10 and 11 May 2017 in Hannover

09.01.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Breaking the optical bandwidth record of stable pulsed lasers

24.01.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Choreographing the microRNA-target dance

24.01.2017 | Life Sciences

Spanish scientists create a 3-D bioprinter to print human skin

24.01.2017 | Health and Medicine

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>