Our Universe Today: When the sun belches…

On 29 March, 2012, the Sun came back to life for many of us who pay attention to such events.

Active region AR1429 rotated back onto the Earth-facing Sun on its northern hemisphere. In this case, the Sun is like a giant conveyor belt moving from our left to right. The last time the sunspots in AR1429 came around the Sun, they generated several dangerous solar storms as a result of the billions of tons of solar ejecta they fired at millions of miles per hour directly at Earth….almost.  Why the caveat?  Because we seem to get famously lucky time after time again when it comes down to considering the danger from Solar storms.

Ever since the great Solar Surprise of Halloween 2003, I came to appreciate that we (Earthlings) are at the mercy of our Sun’s wrath. On that belching outbreak of solar vicera in 2003, had the interlaced magnetic lines that ultimately snapped to release trillions of tons at millions of miles per hour been pointed just a degree or two closer toward Earth, we would have received a more direct impact from this X35+ solar event that would have literally shredded the satellites in geosynchronous orbit as well as many of the other space vehicles orbiting our planet that do our bidding.

Life as we knew it then, would have changed in a single bright flash of “sunburning” radiation.  Readers of this column know that I have already explained that we are essentially at the mercy of Sol, but this week it’s important, and relevant to point out that the dangers presented by the Sun present themselves time and time again to Earth in the same position.

Figure 1Soho image 30 March 2012
Figure 1Soho image 30 March 2012

The Sun really has two conveyor belts, consider one belt in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern hemisphere.  These conveyors move in a consistent manner, like a country stream that brings the flood from upstream to downstream at the same speed, regardless of the size of the flood.  Here in Rockwall, we know how long it takes for the highway to flood near RedLine Raceway after the rains.  The Sun behaves the same way, no matter how small or large a Solar upheaval, it spends about two weeks on the front facing side and then two weeks rounding the back of the Sun.

For more information on the current condition of the Sun, I strongly recommend taking a look at a website called Spaceweather.com; moreover, if you find yourself interested in the Sun, then see my friend Greg’s website.  I’m happy to have as one of my astronomy buddies, a fine gentleman named Greg Piepol.  Greg’s website is Sungazer.net. Greg is quite possibly the greatest solar astrophotographer in the world. Note that I did not distinguish between amateur and professional, he is quite simply the best there is in this field. He does all this while continuing a successful professional career in the northernVirginia area.

Having had the privilege of observing the Sun with Greg in Northern and West Virginia, I know that he is involved in a tremendous education and public outreach (EPO) that provides astronomy in a most accessible manner to the public.  You don’t even have to know anything about astronomy to understand that his equipment looks really expensive and high-tech.  In fact, if he replaced his exotic hydrogen and cacium telescopes with clear glass telescopes on top of the mounts he operates, his setup would still be a world-class rig to study the sky, day or night. Like many of us who image the heavens, Greg submits his work to the major NASA and other sites that post images.

Unlike most of us (or an astro-hack like me), Greg’s images are used in public, have been featured in everything from National Geographic to NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD), MSNBC, The History Channel, and of course Spaceweather.com. He has written several publications including: The Sun and How to Observe It, Sky & Telescope, Astronomy Magazine, and Nature magazines . His images have been featured in various science settings around the world including the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, the Children’s Museum of Ontario, Shanghai Science Museum, Randall Museum and the Adler Planetarium, Montreal Planetarium and Schreder Planetarium.

Figure 2 The Sun, By Greg Piepol
Figure 2 The Sun, By Greg Piepol

Besides his incredible equipment and talents in processing the data he collects in order to turn it into exceptional images like the one in figure 2, Greg is a gifted communicator who easily  explains the intricate workings of the Sun with students and adults. People like Greg, the really talented folks who can not only create amazing images, but also explain what it means  in terms that anyone can understand, are indeed a rarity in this world.  I strive to rise to this level.

This particular column was motivated by two things.  First, that we, the inhabitants of planet Earth have become skilled at making war against each other, making medical instruments to care for each other,  created machines to increase our sense of pleasure and enjoyment, but have done nothing to guard ourselves against even the tiniest of eruptions from our home star, Sol, the Sun.

If  the active solar region 1429 decides to belch out  an X-class coronal mass ejection when it is pointed directly toward Earth, our world will immediately become “non-digital.”  I sure wish we paid as much attention to dealing with things like this, the obvious things that will most certainly happen in time, than we do on superfluous things, or worse, on making war against each other.

The second  idea that inspired this column originated after I received two phone calls from a local PTA requesting that I provide astronomy support to an upcoming event.  Unfortunately, when I explained that I needed either darkness or light to employ my telescopes, it appeared this would throw a wrench into the schedule of the “mad scientist” they had coming to their event.  Indeed it is truly a sad case when a for-profit actor presents a scripted story time program to young people.  Most of the people who are paid nearly minimum wage to throw on a lab coat that probably never saw the inside of an actual laboratory and run a script in front of young people  are not, nor have they, nor will they ever be scientists.  Compare a master of his science, like Greg to one of these charlatans of science and every day Greg wins.  In the future, it would be nice if the adults who plan events to enrich our children are able to differentiate between entertainment and significant technology and science presented to their children.  Oh, and let’s all hope that AR1429 doesn’t get angry in the next couple of weeks.

Also read Our Universe Today: Solar Storm in Progress

Max Corneau, aka AstroDad, of Rockwall

Our Universe Today is a column written by Blue Ribbon News special contributor, Max Corneau, who has lived in Rockwall with his family since 2000.

Max retired from the U.S. Army in 2009 as a Lieutenant Colonel, Senior Space Operations Officer and Master Aviator.  He amassed over 3,200 hours as a pilot of Special Electronic Mission Airplanes.  Since 2004 he has been a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador, is a Master of Astronomical Outreach through the Astronomcial League and built his own astronomical observatory. His amazing images can be seen at AstroDad.com.

To submit your news and events or a guest column on your area of expertise, email editor@BlueRibbonNews.com.

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