What They Are:
Solar flares are an amazing phenomenon in astronomy. Originating from a star, the solar flare has some interesting properties that can make a strong connection to physics as well as make you wonder if we will survive the year of 2012.
A solar flare occurring on the sun. Notice the magnetic field lines that are emerging from the surface.
A solar flare originates within the sun, and is caused by a build up of magnetic energy. When this magnetic energy (stored in a magnetic field) is released, a large amount of plasma is fired from the surface, usually directly over a sun spot. This magnetic field energy is transferred into many different types of energy, one of which is stored in waves (Gamma rays, x-rays, AKA Solar radiation). The amount of this energy that is in a typical solar flare is equivalent to millions of 100-megaton hydrogen bombs going off at the same time. Hard to wrap your head around that? That is about 10^20 joules per second. Still wondering what that is? It would be like having 1,600,000,000,000,000,000 (1.6 quintillion) light bulbs all on at the same time. It seems like a lot of energy, but this solar flare has less energy than the actual amount of energy that the sun creates during its fusion reaction. Just think of a solar flare as a ‘burst’ of this energy.
So with all of this energy being released, why doesn’t it effect us on earth? Well thanks to the earths atmosphere, we never get hit directly with this solar radiation. The atmosphere will deflects most of the electromagnetic radiation. However, NASA has major concerns with these solar flares due to the fact that anything outside of the atmosphere such as satellites, space crafts, and even astronauts can be effected by this mass amount of energy.
Satellites and space crafts do have to be worried about a solar flare. These electromagnetic waves (gamma/x-rays) can burn out circuitry causing many systematic failures. This is a very similar situation to an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) that is used in destroying all electronic devices. With that, any electronic device sent out into space has a fail safe system which can be controlled to protect circuitry and draw large currents away from the main components in the device.
On that note, solar flares have a capability of effecting human beings. NASA is currently running a test on an artificial human being with an artificial solar flare. The reason for this test is to understand what type of safety systems we might have to give astronauts if we travel to the Moon or Mars. In this test, they will emulate what a solar flare would do to a person by having short exposures of radiation strikes to a plastic torso. This torso will have all the elements of a human by scientists placing blood in tubes and within organs through out the body. They also want to run a test where they expose this torso to 18 months (about as long as a mars mission might last) of normal radiation from the sun. Results are still pending, keep a watch on this website:
End of the World….?
You might ask yourself after reading this: When am I ever going to be effected by a solar flare? Well it may soon come. Records have indicated that in 1859 a large amount of solar radiation rained down on the earth. Richard Carrington, an English astronomer at this time, was observing sun spots when all of a sudden a bright white flash appeared on a piece of the sun for about 5 minutes. The northern lights, a common solar event that resembles this solar radiation coming down to earth, was the brightest ever recorded during this time in 1859. In 1859 journal entries through out the US (commonly seen only by the north pole) as well as many captains logs across many different oceans have indicated seeing a green glow so luminous that they could read the newspaper at 1:00AM. This is one of the largest northern light activity ever shown, and it was due to this large eruption in the sun.
A image of the northern lights
During this beauty came many other effects. One that came with the 1859 solar activity was technological problems. The telegraph system, the communication device at that time, went out of service for about 14 hours. Also, many measurement devices were also effected by having readings that were off the charts. This is due to the major effect that electromagnetic waves can have on electronic devices, which you can get more information here.
So you might be asking yourself why this concerns you? We live under the umbrella of technology. Power grids, information, communication, and basically any other part of technology could be effected by an event of this magnitude. Satellites alone in space might be greatly damaged, if not destroyed, by the solar energy.We have invested upwards to 60 billion dollars in these satellites – and these are the exact ones that help us communicate, receive and send information, and go about our daily life.
Your next question might be when will this happen again? It is estimated that something of this magnitude happens once every 500 years. An event of half of this magnitude happens once every 50 years. And the last one recorded was in 1960 – so one is on deck to happen within the next few years.
On that note, we can investigate one of the more interesting ideas that has been proposed. The Mayan’s predicted that the world is to end in 2012. One of the predictions is that it would be done by a large amount of solar activity. Now, solar flares are known to originate from sun spots, and currently there are no sun spots. Sun spot activity follows a cycle of 11 years, and we are about to enter the new cycle of sun spots. This may describe why we get these major events as described in 1859, however, I do want to remind everyone that the magnetic field (our atmosphere) of the earth is what protects us from this solar radiation. So to make a claim that we would die from solar radiation would be false.
So to give you a little recap:
I would like to leave you with a thought. Y2K was thought of as being the end of man kind, and this was due to technology. Many people were frightened due to…..yes, if you remember, it was due to a date change. Comparing Y2K to a solar flare, I just want to say that a solar flare (not properly prepared for) can do a lot more damage than a single date change.