Our Sun, Our Time, and Now Our Curve Ball?

We all have heard that we are entering a period of increased solar activities.  Some have even suggested that this time in this normal 11 year cycle we are going to have a more rigorous solar period.  Indeed, it seems real enough that the country’s major power companies have looked at contingency plans for massive Coronal Mass Ejections(CMEs or solar flares) causing massive power outages in the upcoming three year period.

What has some astro-physicists worried is that this active cycle we are now entering was preceded by one of the quietest periods in activity since monitoring began.  Some say that does not bode well because that may mean an increase in energetic releases when they do start and they have begun.

Now, something new has surfaced and that is it looks like these CMEs can make turns in space!  I kid you not.  Solar storms don’t always travel in a straight line. But once they start heading in our direction, they can accelerate rapidly, gathering steam for a harder hit on Earth’s magnetic field.

So say researchers who have been using data from NASA’s twin STEREO spacecraft to unravel the 3D structure of solar storms. Their findings are presented in Nature Communications.

A coronal mass ejection (CME) observed by STEREO on Dec. 12, 2008.

“This really surprised us,” says co-author Peter Gallagher of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. “Solar coronal mass ejections (CMEs) can start out going one way—and then turn in a different direction.”

The result was so strange, at first they thought they’d done something wrong. After double- and triple-checking their work on dozens of eruptions, however, the team knew they were onto something.

“Our 3D visualizations clearly show that solar storms can be deflected from high solar latitudes and end up hitting planets they might otherwise have missed,” says lead author Jason Byrne, a graduate student at the Trinity Center for High Performance Computing.  A 3D model of an actual CME based on multiscale processing of STEREO data can be found here. [9MB movie]

The key to their analysis was an innovative computing technique called “multiscale image processing.” Gallagher explains:

“‘Multiscale processing’ means taking an image and sorting the things in it according to size. Suppose you’re interested in race cars. If you have a photo that contains a bowl of fruit, a person, and a dragster, you could use multiscale processing to single out the race car and study its characteristics.”

In medical research, multiscale processing has been used to identify individual nuclei in crowded pictures of cells. In astronomy, it comes in handy for picking galaxies out of a busy star field. Gallagher and colleagues are the first to refine and use it in the realm of solar physics.

“We applied the multiscale technique to coronagraph data from NASA’s twin STEREO spacecraft,” Gallagher continues. “Our computer was able to look at starry images cluttered with streamers and bright knots of solar wind and zero in on the CMEs.”

STEREO-A and STEREO–B are widely separated and can see CMEs from different points of view. This allowed the team to create fully-stereoscopic models of the storm clouds and track them as they billowed away from the sun.

One of the first things they noticed was how CMEs trying to go “up”—out of the plane of the solar system and away from the planets—are turned back down again. Gallagher confesses that they had to “crack the books” and spend some time at the white board to fully understand the phenomenon. In the end, the explanation was simple:

The magnetic field of a bar magnet.

The sun’s global magnetic field, which is shaped like a bar magnet, guides the wayward CMEs back toward the sun’s equator. When the clouds reach low latitudes, they get caught up in the solar wind and head out toward the planets—”like a cork bobbing along a river,” says Gallagher.

Once a CME is embedded in the solar wind, it can experience significant acceleration. “This is a result of aerodynamic drag,” says Byrne. “If the wind is blowing fast enough, it drags the CME along with it—something we actually observed in the STEREO data.”

Past studies from other missions had revealed tantalizing hints of this CME-redirection and acceleration process, but STEREO is the first to see it unfold from nearly beginning to end.

“The ability to reconstruct the path of a solar storm through space could be of great benefit to forecasters of space weather at Earth,” notes Alex Young, STEREO Senior Scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center. “Knowing when a CME will arrive is crucial for predicting the onset of geomagnetic storms.”

“Furthermore,” he says, “the image processing techniques developed by the Trinity team in collaboration with NASA Goddard can be used in applications ranging from surveillance to medical diagnostics.”

To learn more about zig-zagging CMEs and the advanced computing techniques used to track them, read “Propagation of an Earth-directed coronal mass ejection in three dimensions” by Byrne et al in the Sept. 21, 2010, issue of Nature Communications.

So folks, we got Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, the economy, the election and now the sun pitching curve balls that can accelerate on their way here.  OMG, I need more coffee and where is that roll of aluminum foil?

The Great Anxiety

As we watch these town hall meetings, where seemingly “normal” people are so frightened and outraged that they can’t control themselves, we see the apparent racial overtones surfacing, violence against opposing views, and irrational fears exhibited.  What I believe is happening is far deeper than these outrageous behaviors of people that concerned about health care.

We are collectively experiencing an ever increasing amount of stress related to wars, disease, economic doom, government and major corporation meltdowns.  This is further complicated by some very natural events, as well.

As we approach the galactic plane, there are very significant changes occurring in relationship to our beloved earth’s magnetic field.  The Earth has a substantial magnetic field, a fact of some historical importance because of the role of the magnetic compass in exploration of the planet.


* *Structure of the Field* *

The field lines defining the structure of the magnetic field are similar to those of a simple bar magnet, as illustrated above.  It is well known that the axis of the magnetic field is tipped with respect to the rotation axis of the Earth. Thus, true north (defined by the direction to the north rotational pole) does not coincide with magnetic north (defined by the direction to the north magnetic pole) and compass directions must be corrected by fixed amounts at given points on the surface of the Earth to yield true directions.  A fundamental property of magnetic fields is that they exert forces on moving electrical charges. Thus, a magnetic field can trap charged particles such as electrons and protons as they are forced to execute a spiraling motion back and forth along the field lines.

One of the first fruits of early space exploration was the discovery in the late 1950s that the Earth is surrounded by two regions of particularly high concentration of charged particles called the Van Allen radiation belts. (The inner and outer Van Allen belts are illustrated in the top figure.) The primary source of these charged particles is the stream of particles emanating from the Sun that we call the solar wind .

The origin of the Earth’s magnetic field is not completely understood, but is thought to be associated with electrical currents produced by the coupling of convective effects and rotation in the spinning liquid metallic outer core of iron and nickel. This mechanism is termed the dynamo effect.  Rocks that are formed from the molten state contain indicators of the magnetic field at the time of their solidification. The study of such “magnetic fossils” indicates that the Earth’s magnetic field reverses itself every million years or so (the north and south magnetic poles switch). This is but one detail of the magnetic field that is not well understood.

The solar wind mentioned above is a stream of ionized gases that blows outward from the Sun at about 400 km/second and that varies in intensity with the amount of surface activity on the Sun. The Earth’s magnetic field shields it from much of the solar wind. When the solar wind encounters Earth’s magnetic field it is deflected like water around the bow of a ship, as illustrated in the adjacent image

solar bow shock

The imaginary surface at which the solar wind is first deflected is called the bow shock. The corresponding region of space sitting behind the bow shock and surrounding the Earth is termed the magnetosphere ; it represents a region of space dominated by the Earth’s magnetic field in the sense that it largely prevents the solar wind from entering. However, some high energy charged particles from the solar wind leak into the magnetosphere and are the source of the charged particles trapped in the Van Allen belts.

Okay, now the primer is over.  As we move toward the galactic plane, there will be increasing magnetic fluxs entering our solar system from the center of the galaxy, which in turn could, and I say could, cause significant solar winds.  In other words, the sun will be dealing with its bow shocks emanating from the center of the galaxy, and we on earth will see an increasing number of magnetospheric changes and fluxes.

There are more than a number of papers that address magnetic field changes and the effects on our nervous systems.  NASA has completed a number of studies in understanding the effects of these fields on astronauts traveling through space.  Therefore, given these facts, I am saying we will experience more and more changes in behavior as we approach this event of passing through the galactic plane.  You may have even noticed changes in family member’s behavior.  Understanding that there may be explainable reasons can provide you with a better ability to cope with these behaviors, and more importantly “keep your own cool”.

If we assume for a moment that this hypothesis has merit, then it behooves us to learn how to handle anxieties.  A simple way is to take fifteen minutes a day to learn to be quiet and simply meditate.  Learn how to breath.

Since this is apparently a routine event every 26,000 years or so, all we need to do is understand it, learn how to survive it, but most importantly, to accept it. I suspect that kind of attitude can pay benefits in our daily lives, I would think.