Solar space weather forecasting
As students and teachers settle into a routine again, the focus shifts to academics. Student names have been learned, textbooks have been handed out, and gradebooks have been set up. Now, teachers get to delve more deeply into the content.
Opening the science book, I looked for a unit to start. With summer drawing to a close and school starting, more time is spent indoors increasing the yearning for outdoor fun in the sun.
News of more frequent solar flares inspired the idea that meteorology would be our starting place. Moving beyond the dry facts of the text, I found an article in the June, 2012, National Geographic entitled, “Solar Super Storms: How They Could Impact our High-tech World.”
In it,Timothy Ferris described how the space weather forecast is for solar storms with a chance of blackouts on earth. Rather than learning only about the four layers of the sun, the class will be studying some of his sizzling facts.
Our sun is a rather unexceptional star by galactic standards and often taken for granted as an ordinary object in the sky, but it’s significance is quite stellar. The photosphere is the part of the sun we see and is comprised of photons generated at the sun’s core in its thermal nuclear furnace.
Elementary science textbooks used to teach 3 states of matter, but the sun is neither solid, liquid, or gas but rather plasma. The charged particles of solar plasma conduct electricity better than copper wire.
Solar winds toss a million tons of plasma every second at a million miles an hour. Photons produced by fusing protons into helium at the sun’s core carry energy slowly to the surface which then travels quickly to earth. Coronal mass ejections, CMEs, are flaring more often as the solar cycle peaks next year
Magnetic field lines like a bird-cage extend from pole to pole on the sun. Plasma pokes through the surface forming loops that cross, short-circuit and explode into solar flares.
These flares release huge bursts of energy equal to millions of megatons of dynamite in the form of charged particles racing at the velocity of light.
Solar winds hitting the earth’s magnetic field set off auroras in the upper atmosphere. As beautiful as this display of color is, it disturbs the ionosphere 60 miles above the earth’s surface where pilots rely on radio signals bounced off the ionosphere to communicate.
Using satellites such as SOHO, Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, scientists monitor our home star. Solar sound waves are tracked to find active regions on the sun before they emerge on the surface and spew prominences like glowing jellyfish into space.
Space weather forecasters continue to attempt more precise determinations of the path of CMEs giving a larger margin of warning when the sun sends the next violent storm toward earth. The fear is that increased solar storms this year will negatively impact the electrical grid so space weather centers are adding staff hoping to make better predictions.
While satellites in space have some built-in protection against solar storms, power grids on earth do not. Electrical transformers caught in these currents can be damaged, causing communication and navigation problems.
Exciting students about this topic includes presenting them with astounding facts and whetting their appetites about future career options. If the sun can’t energize student motivations toward learning, what can?
The sun’s atmosphere gets hotter further from its surface which is a mystery to scientists. Maybe one of our students will be the one who solves this mystery.
Kristi McCracken, author of two children’s books and a long time teacher in the South Valley, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.