Montana State University

MSU researchers say new telescope making it easier to predict solar explosions

May 31, 2007 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


The image of the entire sun shows a solar explosion at the moment it's happening. The inset shows the same area a day earlier. The shape of the explosion may look like an S, but it was actually two J's wrapped around each other. MSU researchers say it's important to know the difference. (Image courtesy of David McKenzie).    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN -- Sharp images from a new X-ray telescope will make it easier to predict solar explosions that could damage satellites, interrupt radio signals or expose astronauts to hazardous radiation, says Montana State University researcher David McKenzie. That's because the new images reveal how magnetic fields on the sun are arranged into twisted structures that hold new clues to the formation of "magnetic storm clouds."

Predictions about solar explosions are as valuable in space as weather forecasts on the ground, McKenzie said as he prepared to speak to the American Astronomical Society in Honolulu. McKenzie and fellow MSU researcher Richard Canfield used images of the sun's atmosphere to distinguish between competing explanations for the shape of solar features that are responsible for potentially dangerous eruptions. McKenzie presented their findings at the May 30 meeting.

MSU researchers are among those operating the X-ray telescope that was launched last fall from Japan. The telescope is one of three riding on the Hinode satellite, a Japanese mission with the United States and United Kingdom as partners. Besides the X-ray telescope, the satellite is carrying a telescope for visible light and one for extreme ultraviolet images. Together, the telescopes show how changes on the sun's surface spread through the solar atmosphere.

The satellite is orbiting 431 miles above ground, crossing both poles and making one lap every 95 minutes. This orbit gives Hinode an uninterrupted view of the sun for several months out of the year, allowing scientists to watch storms develop. It is relaying thousands of images a day, and the new images are more spectacular than he expected, McKenzie said.

"Based on MSU's experience with previous solar satellites, I had an idea what the images were going to look like, but they are even more exciting than I thought they would be," McKenzie said.

Researchers have known for some time that S-shaped features in the sun's atmosphere, called sigmoids, are the dangerous ones, but finding the right explanation for the shape wasn't easy, McKenzie said. The new sharper images reveal the internal framework of the sun's magnetic structures, allowing scientists to distinguish between competing theories about the formation of those structures.

Canfield said, "It's important because knowing how the things are put together puts us on the track to predicting their behavior, such as when they might explode."

Better predictions of solar eruptions helps those who operate satellites, power grids, oil pipelines and other things, the researchers said. Satellite operators who know when the sun is about to hurl materials toward earth can make plans to turn off high voltage systems, for example. Astronauts will know when it's best to stay inside their spacecraft. Airlines will consider rerouting polar flights to avoid communication blackouts, potentially costing millions of dollars per year.

"It's not so important to predict when the northern lights occur, but it sure is helpful to be able to tell the power company when to look out for trouble," McKenzie said.

For more information about sigmoids and solar eruptions, see http://solar.physics.montana.edu/press/faq.html

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu