Although many would groan at the thought of power outages and horrible reception, astrophysicists and physicists at UC Davis are excited because it means the chance to observe the beginning of another solar cycle.
The first sign of Solar Cycle 24 appeared on Jan. 4, as a reversed-polarity sunspot on the sun. It marks the end of the solar minimum of Solar Cycle 23, according to the website science.nasa.gov.
Solar cycles, also known as solar magnetic activity cycles, are the fluctuations of solar energy activity on the sun. Solar activity occurs on average every 11.1 years. The appearance of a reverse-polarity sunspot, a sunspot with the opposite magnetic polarity than the sunspots from the previous solar cycle, marks the beginning of this new solar cycle.
Solar Cycle 23 peaked from 2000 to 2002 with many massive solar storms. It eventually decayed to the current solar minimum, a time of low solar activity, that leaves astrophysicists little to do but wait for the next solar cycle.
Unlike in previous years, UC Davis is prepared to observe and study this upcoming solar cycle with its new telescope and solar filter, said Patricia Boeshaar, professor of physics and astrophysics.
“We recently just purchased a special filter and a 14-inch Celestion telescope for the Hutchison dome,” Boeshaar said. “Hopefully by the fall, we will be able to have not only nighttime viewings, but day viewings as well.”
Currently, the physics department has been using a 12-inch telescope on top of the Physics/Geology Building for observing outer space. But with this new telescope, and possibly a grant from the National Science Foundation to purchase a computer system to record the incoming date, UC Davis will have the technology to study the sun and the effects of its solar cycles.
Solar cycles have a wide range of effects on space and the Earth. As sunspots group together on the surface of the sun, pressure builds below them to the point where the solar gravity can no longer contain them, releasing solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and solar wind.
“The pressure below the sunspots becomes too great for the sun to hold, like the cork in a bottle when it is shaken up,” Boeshaar said.
These releases often shoot out into space, but sometimes they are directed at Earth.
Solar flares are the most dangerous of this “space weather.” As they head toward Earth, x-rays, energetic particles and intense ultraviolet radiation shower the upper atmosphere and ionize the atoms there. These can potentially cling to a spacecraft leaving the ozone and damage the electronics in the spacecraft, according to Voyages to the Stars and Galaxies.
Coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, are an example of how disruptive space weather can affect electronic devices. A CME is an erupting bubble of tens of millions of tons of gas blown away from sunspots on the sun into space. It takes a few days to reach the earth, but when it does, it distorts the magnetic field and accelerates electrons like an electromagnetic pulse. This pulse can permanently damage or disable the operation of electronics so any airplanes or electronic devices within its range turn off. A CME colliding with the earth provides an additional 1,500 gigawatts of electricity, enough to power the United States twice, according to solarweek.org.
Another less damaging and more beautiful effect of solar cycles is the aurorae, or the northern and southern lights. Coronal holes allow solar wind to escape the sun, and when it contacts the Earth’s atmosphere, it excites oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the air, causing them to turn green, red and sometimes blue.
“The aurorae have been known to reach all the way down to Oregon and Idaho, but unfortunately, they will never be seen in Davis because we are too far away from Earth’s magnetic pole,” Boeshaar said.
The worst solar storm occurred in 1989 in Quebec, Canada, which caused a full-scale power blackout that affected 6 million people for nine hours.
Unforeseen consequences of solar storms lie in the future. Space travel could easily be a risk because humans are no longer protected by the Earth’s atmosphere and could be affected by intense radiation. Because of this concern, NASA keeps a continual watch on the sun, making sure each space mission does not coincide with a solar storm.
The best protection from solar storms in space is to take the proper precautions. NASA’s Space Weather Initiative was set up to provide an early warning to power station technicians and other important electronic outlets so they can react correctly, according to solarweek.org.
NICK MARKWITH can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.XXX