On the same day that NASA reported that they believe that they saw a gamma-wave light burst from the collision of two black holes, a new study was released to show that multiple viewing stations most certainly saw a 2013 solar flare that gave scientists further insight into an electromagnetic phenomenon called a current sheet and solar flares as we understand them.
Solar flares and the sun
When magnetic fields play a celestial game of “duck, duck, goose” you get solar flares as the participants rearrange themselves in a little game of their own called magnetic reconnection. Well, that’s the theory at least, but following a solar flare in late 2013 it seems that the scientists responsible for our understanding of solar flares seem to be spot on with this one.
Perhaps your understanding of solar flares is limited to having heard that the sun’s radiation can impact the ionosphere in a manner that adversely affects communications be they radio waves or GPS devices. I’ll admit it to not understanding much more until reading a piece on solar flares and current sheets that was published Tuesday in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Solar flares are impossible to predict, nor do they give any advance warning as they travel at the speed of light. It’s precisely for this reason that scientists devote time to their study. Through continued study, it’s the hope of many that they will understand what leads-up to a large flare in the hopes of predicting the chances of occurrence prior to a disruption in communications.
And to that end, astrophysicists are spending more and more time with current sheets.
“The existence of a current sheet is crucial in all our models of solar flares,” said James McAteer, an astrophysicist at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and an author of the study published Tuesday. “So these observations make us much more comfortable that our models are good.”
So how about these current sheets?
For the layman (of which I’m admittedly one), current sheets form when to oppositely aligned magnetic fields want to get to know each other and approach each other to do so. When they meet they produce a flow of electrically-charged material that is quite thin (hence, sheet). When current sheets occur solar flares, or magnetic reconnection, is likely on the horizon as electric currents enter this high-pressure area.
“Magnetic reconnection happens at the interface of oppositely-aligned magnetic fields,” said Chunming Zhu, a space scientist at New Mexico State University and lead author on the study. “The magnetic fields break and reconnect, leading to a transformation of the magnetic energy into heat and light, producing a solar flare.”
By looking at current sheets, scientists are peering into the origin of solar flares. That’s not to say it’s easy.
“You have to be watching at the right time, at the right angle, with the right instruments to see a current sheet,” said McAteer. “It’s hard to get all those ducks in a row.”
Quite simply, the observance of the 2013 solar flare event by three points of observation has allowed scientists different angles to take this particular current sheet apart and learn from it.
Those three points? NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, NASA’s Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory, or STEREO and Hinode, which is led by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in a collaboration with NASA the ESA and the UK’s space agency.
Thanks to these multiple viewpoints, scientists hope to finally predict solar flares by studying the all-important current sheet.