Solar flares keep going and going

U. COLORADO-BOULDER (US) — Energy from solar flares is stronger and can last up to five hours longer than previously thought, according to data from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Solar flares are intense bursts of radiation that come from the release of magnetic energy associated with sunspots. Flares are the solar system’s largest explosive events and can be seen as bright areas on the sun. Their energy can reach Earth’s atmosphere and affect operations of Earth-orbiting communication and navigation satellites.


“If we can get these new results into space weather prediction models, we should be able to more reliably forecast solar events and their effects on our communication and navigation systems on Earth,” says Tom Woods, senior research associate at University of Colorado-Boulder.

Woods led development of the Extreme ultraviolet Variability Experiment (EVE), a $32 million instrument onboard the SDO. “It will take some time and effort, but it is important.”

“Previous observations considered a few seconds or minutes to be the normal part of the flare process,” says Lika Guhathakurta, lead program scientist for NASA’s Living With a Star Program. “This new data will increase our understanding of flare physics and the consequences in near-Earth space where many scientific and commercial satellites reside.”

On Nov. 3, 2010, a solar flare was observed by SDO. If scientists had only measured the effects of the solar flare as it initially happened, the information would have resulted in underestimating the amount of energy shooting into Earth’s atmosphere by 70 percent. The new capability with SDO observations will provide a more accurate estimation of the total energy input into Earth’s environment.

“For decades, our standard for flares has been to watch the X-rays as they happen and see when they peak,” says Woods, principal author of a paper published online in Astrophysical Journal. “That’s our definition for when a flare goes off. But we were seeing peaks that didn’t correspond to the X-rays.”

Over the course of a year, the team used the EVE instrument to record graphs that map out each wavelength of light as it gets stronger, peaks, and diminishes over time. EVE records data every 10 seconds, and thus EVE has observed numerous flares. Previous instruments only measured every hour and a half or didn’t look at all the wavelengths simultaneously as SDO can.

“We are seeing something that is new and surprising about the physics of solar flares,” says doctoral student and co-author Rachel Hock. “When we looked at the observations from our instruments aboard SDO and compared them with our physical models, the results were consistent with each other. That was good news to us.”

Because this previously unrealized extra source of energy from the flare is equally important in its impact on Earth’s atmosphere, Woods and his colleagues are now studying how the late phase flares can influence space weather. In addition to impacting communication and navigation systems, strong solar flares can influence satellite drag and the decay of orbital debris.

When the ionosphere of Earth is disturbed by solar flares and coronal mass ejections, the communication between Earth-based instruments and GPS satellites can degrade.

“If GPS positions on Earth are off by 100 feet or so because of disruption in the ionosphere, it wouldn’t be a big deal for someone driving down a highway,” Woods says. “But if a farmer is using GPS to help determine precisely where to plant particular seeds, that GPS signal error could make a big difference.”

To complement the EVE graphical data, scientists used images from another SDO instrument called the Advanced Imaging Assembly, or AIA, built by Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory in Palo Alto, Calif.

Analysis of the images showed the main phase flare eruption and the secondary phase as exhibited by coronal loops or magnetic field lines far above the original flare site. These extra loops were longer and became brighter later than the original set and these loops were also physically set apart from those earlier ones.

SDO was launched on Feb. 11, 2010, and is the most advanced spacecraft ever designed to study the sun and its dynamic behavior.  The advanced spacecraft provides images with clarity 10 times better than high-definition television and provides more comprehensive science data faster than any solar observing spacecraft in history.

EVE includes three spectrographs to measure the solar extreme ultraviolet radiation. By making measurements every 10 seconds at 10 times the resolution of previous instruments, EVE is providing scientists and space weather forecasters with the information to provide more accurate, real-time warnings of communications and navigation outages, Woods says.

“We can look at data every minute, 24 hours a day, to help us forecast what the sun is doing.”

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