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Prof Looks At 'Sun'-ny Side Of Solar Weather

The Global Positioning System in your car isn’t working properly. Your cell phone is getting an unusually poor signal. The flight you are taking is unexpectedly rerouted.

While we may blame these inconveniences on the GPS manufacturer, the cell phone provider or the airline, these disruptions can be caused by something companies cannot prevent: the sun’s particles and flares, according to associate professor of physics C. Renee James.

James’ research on the sun’s emissions is featured on the cover of the July 2007 issue of Sky and Telescope magazine.

A self-proclaimed “science geek” who researches “whatever catches my eye,” James became interested in solar weather as an offshoot of the things she covers in her solar system class.

Playing “reporter,” she interviewed experts in the field for the seven-page article and found that the sun’s outbursts can lead to major problems with our communications, space travel and even our health.

“It is something that I didn’t realize had such impact,” she said.

The sun randomly and periodically emits various types of flares, and when the Earth just happens to be in the way of the eruptions, the collisions lead to anywhere from seemingly ineffectual to potentially disastrous results.

Most people, James included, are “oblivious” when such events occur, including one in January 2005, which has been labeled one of the 20 most powerful events in history, when Earth was “pummeled by a barrage of energetic protons” and “resulted in the most intense ground-level radiation in a half-century,” she said.

Others, such as the 1989 event that plunged much of Quebec into darkness as the city’s entire power grid went down, are noticed only because of their consequences.

While the doses of radiation that result from some flares can be fatal, the earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field serve as a “nice shield for us,” she said.

However, the earth’s atmosphere doesn’t protect astronauts, who could die if one of the more dangerous flares were to be emitted while they were in space.

The radiation could also have a long-term effect on those who travel by airplane, such as flight attendants and pilots.

These types of outbursts are more likely, however, to affect corporate pocketbooks, such as with pipelines, which can “occasionally degrade and will start leaking” due to long-term effects.

“A big event actually makes our atmosphere swell up, because it adds a lot of energy to our atmosphere, and it puffs up a bit,” James said. “So anything that we’ve got in orbit, communication satellites and such, that were happy orbiting, all of the sudden, they get this huge drag on them because the atmosphere is puffier than it used to be, and they will actually go plowing into atmosphere.

“So you either have to correct for that or you have to accept the fact that your satellite just got burned up,” she said. “There are a lot of things that will cost a lot of money.”

The problem in correcting for such events is that physicists are still learning about the sun.

“There is only about 50 years of data about the physical conditions of the sun’s face,” James said. “It’s a monstrously big chaotic ball of gas and just incredibly dynamic magnetic fields that are interacting in ways that we don’t really understand.

“We don’t understand what’s going on between them and what’s on the interior of the sun, and it makes it very difficult,” she said.

Another limiting factor: the speed at which some flares are emitted.

“Some of the things that come off the sun are going almost the speed of light,” James said. “You can’t communicate anything faster than the speed of light, so if you’ve got a satellite and its purpose is to watch the sun, by the time it says there is this huge event happening and we have to protect for it, it’s already happening.”

As computing power gets better, physicists will be able to get a better handle on the sun and predict what may occur.

Generally, physicists look at previous cycles to predict the “solar weather,” but the sun’s 23rd cycle “threw everyone,” James said, adding that there are two predictions of what may happen as the sun enters its 24th cycle.

With billions of dollars invested in space and satellites running communications, one would think that solar research would be on Congress’s agenda, but “it seems that the U.S. Congress is turning a blind eye to the Space Environmental Center’s needs,” James said in her article.

“The things that impact us personally are actually getting to be more and more common. Back in the day when you didn’t have all of these electronic gadgets and all the satellites that are running our lives, people didn’t notice much except when there was a pretty aurora,” James said. “We’re so dependent on it now; that’s the problem. We have so much stuff in space and so much stuff locked up in electricity and communication that anytime there is a major event like that, it can take things down.

“It’s getting to the point where it’s something that we depend on so much, and it’s financially important,” she said. “At some point, Congress will wake up and say, ‘we really need to make sure we can protect these satellites, protect these astronauts, protect these plane crews.” these satellites, protect these astronauts, protect these plane crews.”




SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt
June 19, 2007
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