The ‘gigantic hole’ in the SUN that’s firing solar material into space and was spotted by a spacecraft
- The massive coronal hole – a dark, low density region of the sun’s outermost atmosphere – covered a quarter of the sun
- Spotted by the SOHO spacecraft, coronal holes contain little solar material, have lower temperatures and appear much darker than their surroundings
- Scientists are studying the holes to learn more about space weather, that could one day affect life on Earth
PUBLISHED: 15:26 GMT, 29 July 2013 | UPDATED: 23:08 GMT, 29 July 2013
A ‘gigantic hole’ in the sun’s atmosphere, hovering over the solar north pole, has been photographed by a space telescope.
The dark spot, which covers almost a quarter of the sun, is a large ‘coronal hole’ – a dark, low density region of the sun’s outermost atmosphere, the corona.
It was spotted by the European Space Agency/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft between 13 and 18 July, during which time it was spewing out material including solar wind into space.
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A ‘gigantic hole’ in the sun’s atmosphere, hovering over the solar north pole, has been photographed by a space telescope. The dark spot (pictured), which covers almost a quarter of the sun, is a large coronal hole
While the hole looks devoid of solar activity, it was in fact releasing violent blasts of solar wind and spewing out solar particles at around 500 miles per second.
The holes have lower temperatures and therefore appear much darker than their surroundings.
Karen Fox of Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre said that while coronal holes are a typical feature on the sun, they appear at different places and with more frequency at different times of the sun’s activity cycle, which typically takes around 11 years.
The sun’s activity cycle is currently ramping up toward what is known as solar maximum, predicted for late 2013 – during which time the number of coronal holes decreases.
During solar maximum, the magnetic fields on the sun reverse and new coronal holes appear near the poles with the opposite magnetic alignment.
The coronal holes then increase in size and number, extending further from the poles as the sun moves toward solar minimum again.
At such times, coronal holes have appeared that are even larger than this one, which measures approximately 400,000 miles across, or the equivalent to 50 Earths in a row.
While it’s unclear what causes holes, they correlate to areas on the sun where magnetic fields soar up and away, failing to loop back down to the surface, as they do elsewhere.
Scientists study coronal holes to learn more about space weather, as the holes are the source of a high-speed wind of solar particles that streams off the sun some three times faster than the slower wind elsewhere.
Scientists study coronal holes (pictured) to learn about space weather. The holes are the source of a high-speed wind of solar particles that streams off the sun three times faster than the slower wind elsewhere
While space weather might sound like an unimportant issue to us, a report published earlier this year by the Royal Academy of Engineering recommended that the UK should plan to mitigate the effects of a rare but potentially serious solar superstorm, where explosive eruptions of energy from the Sun could cause damage.
It is thought that serious space weather could degrade the performance of the electricity grid, satellites, GPS systems, aviation and possibly mobile communications on Earth.
The image of the coronal hole was taken by the $1.3 billion SOHO spacecraft, launched in 1995 to monitor solar activity from a stable point between the sun and the earth.
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|See updates below | In case you haven’t heard about it, a huge
chunk portion of the sun’s corona has indeed gone missing. But even if you have heard about this so-called “coronal hole,” click on the screenshot above. It’ll take you to a new animation of the phenomenon posted to the web today by NASA. It’s really dramatic.
| Update 7/31/13: After posting this piece, I had second thoughts about my use of the word “chunk” in the original headline (which read “Why is a Huge Chunk of the Sun Missing”) and in the first paragraph. A huge portion of the sun’s corona, or outer atmosphere, has indeed gone missing. (See the explanation below.) But the word “chunk” implies that a really thick piece of the sun is gone. That’s not true. So I’ve changed the headline and the first paragraph to reflect this. |
The animation consists of images sent back to Earth by NASA’s Solar & Heliospheric Observatory spacecraft, or SOHO. The large, roughly triangular dark area is the coronal hole.
The animation above dates to July 16th. Click here to see another animation, covering July 20-22.
Corey Powell, who writes the awesome “Out There” blog here at Discover, was interviewed about the phenomenon today on the Fox News program America’s Newsroom. Check out the interview in its entirety here.
Corey’s money quote:
You’ll notice that part of the sun is missing . . . This part that’s missing, the reason it’s dark, is that whole chunk of the sun basically ripped off, blew out and is coming our way at about 2 million miles an hour.
Some explanation: The sun can develop a coronal hole when a portion of its magnetic field fails to loop back onto the surface, as it usually does. This allows more solar material to escape into space. In other words, it makes the solar wind even windier. That’s the stuff that’s flying out into space. The region looks dark because there’s simply less hot and bright solar material left behind.
Corey was quick to point out that formation of coronal holes isn’t unusual. But to be sure, this one is larger than most. Measured from one side to the other, the hole is about 80 times as wide as the Earth. “So this is an incredible chunk of the Sun that’s flying out,” he said.
Earth is shielded from the material in the solar wind by it’s magnetic field. But when solar material hits the field, it can jostle it in a way that causes disruption to satellites, power lines and industrial equipment. And sometimes that disruption can be pretty severe.
Not to worry. I checked the forecast from the Space Weather Prediction Center from today (July 30), and nothing terribly dramatic appears to be in store, at least for the next few days:
The geomagnetic field is expected to be at quiet levels on days one and two (31 Jul, 01 Aug) and quiet to unsettled levels on day three (02 Aug).
Giant hole in sun’s atmosphere seen by orbiting observatory
GREENBELT, Md., July 22 (UPI) — NASA says a U.S.-European solar observatory has observed a giant example of a phenomenon knows as a coronal hole in the sun’s outer atmosphere.
The European Space Agency/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO, captured an image of a huge coronal hole hovering over the sun’s north pole on July 18, NASA reported Monday.
Dark, low density regions of the sun’s corona, its outermost atmosphere, coronal holes contain little solar material and have lower temperatures, making them appear much darker than their surroundings.
Such holes are a source of a high-speed wind of solar particles that streams off the sun some three times faster than the slower wind elsewhere in the sun’s atmosphere, creating space weather that can affect satellites in orbit and communications on Earth, NASA said.
The exact cause of coronal holes is unclear, scientists said, although they appear to correlate to areas on the sun where magnetic fields rise up and away, failing to loop back down to the sun’s surface as they do elsewhere.
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Magnetic reconnection is responsible for all explosions on the sun and occurs during solar flares and coronal mass ejections. During a recent solar flare, spacecraft were able to capture this process in action and could help scientists understand space weather.
The Rhessi spacecraft was able to capture magnetic reconnection as it was happening. The two hot points above and below the center is a known magnetic reconnection signature. NASA/SDO/RHESSI/Goddard
Magnetic reconnection occurs when magnetic fields join and then rearrange, according to NASA. The magnetic fields swap places, and a burst of magnetic energy is released. While magnetic fields are invisible, plasma travels along these lines, allowing scientists to follow the particles and map out the looping magnetic fields. On Aug. 11, 2012 NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory and the Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager, or Rhessi, witnessed a solar flare, and the spacecraft were able to capture magnetic reconnection in action.
Yang Su, from the University of Graz in Austria, said the latest data is just the latest part of an incomplete puzzle that explains how magnetic reconnection causes solar flares. “We have so many pieces of evidence, but the picture is not yet complete,” Su said in the NASA release. Su was responsible for discovering the spacecraft-captured magnetic reconnection in action, and the research was published in the journal Nature Physics.
Magnetic reconnection has been captured in images prior to Su’s research, but the images collected by SDO and Rhessi are the most complete evidence to date. In the video created by NASA, two magnetic fields can be seen joining briefly to form an “X” shape and then separating, one line of plasma particles being propelled into the space and the other line of plasma particles crashing to the sun’s surface, NASA reports. Sometimes, the line of plasma that gets ejected into space escapes the sun’s atmosphere and becomes a coronal mass ejection.
Su observed the process in SDO’s data, and the discovery was confirmed using Rhessi. The spacecraft can measure electromagnetic radiation and create images based on that data. The Rhessi data revealed two extremely hot points above and below the reconnection point of the two magnetic fields, a known sign of magnetic reconnection, NASA reports.
“This is the first time we’ve seen the entire, detailed structure of this process, because of the high-quality data from SDO,” Su said. The new evidence will lead to a better model of magnetic reconnection, how fast the process happens and the energy involved in the process, NASA notes. The newer models will help scientists observe other stars, as magnetic reconnection occurs in stars throughout the universe, and can help create better advanced warning systems for space weather. Coronal mass ejections and solar flares can send particles and radiation toward Earth. While the radiation cannot get through the Earth’s atmosphere, space weather can affect satellites and radio communication.
The video of the magnetic reconnection can be viewed below.
Charles Poladian joined IBTimes in October 2012 and, when not reporting on all things topical, can be found reading or photographing concerts.More from Charles Poladian
What is Solar Wind?Nola Taylor Redd, SPACE.com Contributor | August 01, 2013 07:12pm ET
The solar wind streams plasma and particles from the sun out into space. Though the wind is constant, its properties aren’t. What causes this stream, and how does it affect the Earth?This is an artist’s concept of the Earth’s global magnetic field, with the bow shock. Earth is in the middle of the image, surrounded by its magnetic field, represented by purple lines. The bow shock is the blue crescent on the right. Many energetic particles in the solar wind, represented in gold, are deflected by Earth’s magnetic “shield".
Credit: Walt Feimer (HTSI)/NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab
The corona, the sun’s outer layer, reaches temperatures of up to 2 million degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 million Celsius). At this level, the sun’s gravity can’t hold on to the rapidly moving particles, and it streams away from the star.
The sun’s activity shifts over the course of its 11-year cycle, with sun spot numbers, radiation levels, and ejected material changing over time. These alterations affect the properties of the solar wind, including its magnetic field properties, velocity, temperature and density. The wind also differs based on where on the sun it comes from and how quickly that portion is rotating.
The velocity of the solar wind is higher over coronal holes, reaching speeds of up to 500 miles (800 kilometers) per second. The temperature and density over coronal holes are low, and the magnetic field is weak, so the field lines are open to space. These holes occur at the poles and low latitudes, and reach their largest when activity on the sun is at its minimum. Temperatures in the fast wind can reach up to 1 million degrees F (800,000 C).
At the coronal streamer belt around the equator, the solar wind travels more slowly, at around 200 miles (300 km) per second. Temperatures in the slow wind reach up to 2.9 million F (1.6 million C).
As the wind travels off the sun, it carries charged particles and magnetic clouds. Emitted in all directions, some of the solar wind is constantly buffeting our planet, with interesting effects.
If the material carried by the solar wind reached a planet’s surface, its radiation would do severe damage to any life that might exist. Earth’s magnetic field serves as a shield, redirecting the material around the planet so that it streams beyond it. The force of the wind stretches out the magnetic field so that it is smooshed inward on the sun-side and stretched out on the night side.
Sometimes the sun spits out large bursts of plasma known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), or solar storms. More common during the active period of the cycle known as the solar maximum, CMEs have a stronger effect than the standard solar wind. [Photos: Stunning Photos of Solar Flares & Solar Storms]
When the solar wind carries CMEs and other powerful bursts of radiation into a planet’s magnetic field, it can cause the magnetic field on the back side to press together, a process known as magnetic reconnection. Charged particles then stream back toward the planet’s magnetic poles, causing beautiful displays known as the aurora borealis in the upper atmosphere. [Photos: Amazing Auroras of 2012]
Though some bodies are shielded by a magnetic field, others lack their protection. Earth’s moon has nothing to protect it, so takes the full brunt.Mercury, the closest planet, has a magnetic field that shields it from the regular standard wind, but it takes the full force of more powerful outbursts such as CMEs.
When the high- and low-speed streams interact with one another, they create dense regions known as co-rotating interaction regions (CIRs) that trigger geomagnetic storms when they interact with Earth’s atmosphere.
Studying the solar wind
NASA’s Ulysses mission launched on Oct. 6, 1990, and studied the sun at various latitudes. It measured the various properties of the solar wind over the course of more than a dozen years.
The Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite orbits at one of the special points between Earth and the sun known as the Lagrange point. In this area, gravity from the sun and the planet pull equally, keeping the satellite in a stable orbit. Launched in 1997, ACE measures the solar wind and provides real-time measurements of the constant flow of particles.
Space invasion: Solar storms pose critical threat to US infrastructure
On September 1, 1859, the most powerful geomagnetic storm of modern times hit the Earth. Aurorae, normally visible only at high latitudes, reached the Caribbean. The glow over the Rocky Mountains was so bright, gold miners reportedly exited their tents and began preparing breakfast. Telegraphs failed across the world — though in some areas, they continued to send and receive messages, even after being disconnected from their electrical supplies.
The event became known as the Carrington Event, after British astronomer Richard Carrington — but what caused small problems and unusual events in the 1800s would be absolutely devastating today. The handful of moderate geomagnetic storms in the last 40 years have caused significant damage to the grid; a full hammerblow would destroy the US electrical grid for several years. The economic impact of a similar disaster today is estimated at $2.6 trillion.
Often, when online publications write disaster-themed science stories, there are a number of comforting facts buried below the lede to take the edge off. Sure, a dinosaur-level extinction event could make for a really rocky millennium or two on Earth, but the chances of a rock that big hitting the planet are minuscule. Reading up on the potential impact [PDF] a coronal mass ejection (CME) could have on Earth offers no such comfort. (Read: Tesla turns in his grave: Is it finally time to switch from AC to DC?)
The truth is, solar flares as large as the one that caused the 1859 Carrington Event happen fairly regularly. Since we started monitoring the Sun’s solar cycle, we’ve gotten lucky on a number of occasions — CMEs that would have hit us even harder than 1859 have merely glanced us due to a non-ideal trajectory. Meanwhile, the United States’ grid is more vulnerable to such events than ever before — our transformer grid is, on average, nearly 40 years old, high-voltage power lines are carrying far more energy than they used to on a day-to-day basis, and there’s virtually no way to quickly repair the damage such a storm would cause.
Cloudy with a chance of civilization-crippling electromagnetic forces
Just how much of a threat is this? We consulted the Department of Energy’s own research to get a better idea. According to that report, transformers are custom-designed, highly intricate, take up to two years to manufacture, cost between $5-7 million apiece, and weigh between 100 and 400 tons. Ordinary transformers are far too bulky and heavy to ship by road, and must be moved around the country in specially-designed railcars. Smaller models are available, but are typically more expensive.
The United States power grid is utterly incapable of weathering a devastating geomagnetic storm. In worst-case scenarios, the sheer amount of energy flowing down the high-voltage wire would blow transformers in quick succession. The automatic load balancing and considerable safety margins that are built into plants are designed to deal with terrestrial disasters, not space invasions. Offline power capacity normally used for supplementing baseline power during peak hours might survive, but these plants are not staffed or fueled for long duration. Up to 92% of the Northeast’s power generation capability could be taken offline for periods of several years.
A cascade failure that took out such a huge swath of our power generation would have untold downstream effects as people lost the ability to contact emergency services, lost water pressure in areas that rely on electrical pumps, and were forced to rely on limited generator power. The damage estimates aren’t just theoretical — we know the electrical grid is sensitive to such geomagnetic storms after a surge in 1989 caused a major failure of a hydroelectric generator in Quebec. In the wake of that event, some of the US-based power companies instituted safeguards, but they’re woefully lacking compared to what could hit us.
Even moderate geomagnetic storms cause significant damage or accelerate failures in equipment. Two years after the 1989 storm, 12 mid-sized transformers had failed — all of them significantly earlier than had otherwise been expected. During solar storms on April 3-5 1994, major transformers failed in Illinois at the Zion Nuclear plant as well as facilities in Braidwood and at the Powerton coal plant.
The good news is, there are ways to protect the grid and mitigate the damage that another Carrington event would cause. The bad news is, we’re mostly not doing them, despite the catastrophic damage such an event will cause. The Washington DC/New York City corridor is considered to be most at-risk, with 20-40 million people in danger. While it would cost several billion dollars to protect existing lines, the impact of a severe storm currently sits at an estimated $2.6 trillion.
Unlike dinosaur-level extinction events, geomagnetic storms that cause enormous disruptions in the Earth’s magnetic field are a regular phenomenon and were reported widely in historical journals and writings, stretching back to the dawn of human history. Storms with the power of the 1859 CME hit, on average, every 154 years.
Solar storms can junk up our technology, new NASA satellite may help thwart them
NASA’s newest telescope is giving scientists their clearest pictures yet of the sun’s atmosphere, and in doing so could help mitigate the potentially devastating effects an extreme solar storm could have on our power and communications networks on Earth.
Launched a month ago, the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, or IRIS, on Thursday sent some of its first images of the sun back to Earth. The pictures should help scientists form a better understanding of the sun’s weather, which is important because its influence on Earth goes well beyond providing sunlight and warmth.
An ever-changing pattern of instability on the sun’s surface causes particles to be thrown outward, sometimes directly toward the Earth. These eruptions can take the form of solar flares, which cause the awe-inspiring northern lights, but can also cause the Earth’s atmosphere to expand and increase the amount of drag on low-Earth-orbit satellites, such as those used for spying and GPS navigation, shortening their lifespan.
The most violent eruptions can have a much larger impact, including potentially knocking power grids offline and leaving millions without electricity. Such an eruption occurred in 1859, frying parts of the international telegraph system, which at the time was the main medium for long-distance communications.
If such an event occurred today, with electricity and Internet communications such a fundamental part of daily life, it’s hard to even fully imagine the potential impact. A recent report from Lloyds of London suggested the damage from a violent eruption could leave 20 million people without power for as long as two years.
All solar weather travels through the lower solar atmosphere, and IRIS contains a powerful spectrograph that will focus on this region of the sun. Thus, scientists hope IRIS will give them a better understanding of these solar events and perhaps help them find a way to predict them.
“These beautiful images from IRIS are going to help us understand how the sun’s lower atmosphere might power a host of events around the sun,” Adrian Daw, mission scientist for IRIS at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement. “Any time you look at something in more detail than has ever been seen before, it opens up new doors to understanding. There’s always that potential element of surprise.”
The Earth is prone to the impact of solar weather because the particles hitting Earth from the sun are magnetized.
“When that magnetic field hits the Earth’s magnetic field, we have two magnetic fields interacting and you create electrical currents,” said Karel Schrijver, a senior fellow at Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ advanced technology center in Palo Alto, California. Lockheed Martin built the spectrograph that lies at the heart of IRIS’ observations of the sun.
The electrical currents will run through any conductor on Earth, Schrijver said, and have their greatest effect on high-voltage power lines that sit at the heart of the electric grid. The lines are like inter-city freeways for electricity, carrying power across vast distances at voltages as high as 765,000 volts. Large transformers are used to “step down” the voltage where the lines connect with regional distribution systems, and it is those transformers that are at risk. If the geomagnetic storm is large enough, the induced currents can melt the transformers.
A real threat
One of the strongest major storms in recent memory occurred in March 1989. Over a period of several minutes, the Hydro Quebec power grid in eastern Canada collapsed and 6 million customers lost power. The blackout lasted almost nine hours and caused an estimated C$2 billion in economic losses—and it could have been worse. The effects almost cascaded to regional power grids, which could have blacked out the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions of the U.S.
Scientists and power grid operators worry about the prospect of something much larger, and such an event would not be without precedent.
Over the final days of August and first days of September 1859, an extreme solar storm occurred that ranks as the strongest ever recorded. It enabled amateur astronomers to make the first-ever observations of solar flares, and such giant storms are now named after one of those astronomers, Richard Carrington.
The Carrington event was so strong that aurorae, usually confined to the far north, could be seen in the night sky as far south as the Caribbean. Electricity still wasn’t widely in use, but the storm shut down parts of the international telegraph network. In some places, telegraph lines were reported to be sparking, and The New York Times reported from Montreal that the Canadian Telegraph Co. took five hours to send a 400-word report because of the bad conditions.
“So completely were the wires under the influence of the Aurora Borealis, it was found utterly impossible to communicate between the telegraph stations, and the line was closed for the night,” the newspaper reported on Aug. 30, 1859.
Historical records suggest Carrington-level events occur every 50 to 250 years, so Earth is now at the 150-year sweetspot for a repeat.
A recent report by Lloyd’s of London predicted that another Carrington-level event is “almost inevitable in the near future” and paints a concerning picture of its potential effects. Should the U.S. be hit head on by such a storm, the report says, 20 million to 40 million people could be left without power for anything between 16 days and two years. The recovery time is so long because high-voltage transformers are such specialty items. Power utilities don’t keep spare ones lying around, and they take up to 16 months to build.
The economic impact of such an event could be as high as $2.6 trillion, the Lloyds report said.
Staving off an economic threat
The power industry isn’t ignoring the threat. An April 2011 workshop between electricity grid operators from the U.S. and Canada resulted in the creation of a space weather alert system for the industry, and plans for coordination should a major geomagnetic storm be detected. Grid operators would have between 15 hours and two days to prepare for the storm by increasing reserves, reducing power transfers and lightening the load on susceptible equipment.
But any reduction in the availability of power could itself have an economic impact, so it’s a situation to be avoided unless the likelihood of serious damage to the power grid is high.
Learning more about the sun’s weather can only help scientists to provide warnings for such events.
“What we don’t know is how it works, what in detail it will damage, or how likely it is that that damage will spread,” Schrijver said. “And the difficulty with it is that these things happen only rarely. Once a century is when a really big solar event occurs, and our technological infrastructure has changed so much, we’ve never been exposed to it.”
Updated at 12:20 p.m. PT with a video report from IDG News Service.