Physics Question #1742

Dane Haas, a 11 year old male from Flesherton asks on December 11, 2003,

What are the most recent solar storms and will they effect the Earth's atmosphere?

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The answer

Donald J. Barry answered on January 30, 2004

Our Sun generated some interesting space weather in November, but aside from some particularly brilliant displays of aurora visible from as far south (in the Northern Hemisphere) as Texas, there are no lasting effects on our planet.

The Sun has a magnetic field much like the Earth's, but unlike the Earth's, the Sun's magnetic field changes -- it fact it flips every 11 years to point in roughly the opposite direction. At certain times during this cycle, the Sun tends to develop more sunspots, and these sunspots, which themselves are areas where tangles of an even stronger magnetic field that exists inside the Sun emerge to the surface, can behave in very odd ways.

The most spectacular of these odd behaviors are called flares. On earth, we do not directly notice even the strongest flares except with scientific instruments, but we do see their aftereffects.

A large flare may unleash billions of tons of gas from the Sun's surface, and this gas, when it strikes the magnetic field of our planet after a journey of several days, produces auroral displays. It also heats and expands the outer atmosphere of our planet, which produces drag on spacecraft orbiting close to the Earth and may diminish their lifetime.

The environment outside the protected area of the Earth's magnetic field is also bombarded with high-energy radiation. We're protected on the planet, but spacecraft high in orbit and those enroute to other planets are vulnerable. There were upsets, but no permanent damage, to the Mars rover missions and to a mission that plans to return dust from a comet to Earth. The Spitzer Space Telescope, for which my team at Cornell University designed and built one of the instruments, suffered slight but predicted damage to the quality of its cameras from this radiation.

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