NASA Celebrates 10 Years of Gazing Into the Damn Sun

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You know the deal with the sunshine: Don’t look right at it. Don’t fly too close to it. Pretty basic stuff. Not that NASA heeds that advice.For 10 years now, two spacecraft have beenorbiting our nearest superstar, staring into it to unravelits secrets.

The region between Earth and the sunlight, a distance of some 93 million miles, teemswith solar flare and solar gale and charged particles. The twoSolar Terrestrial Relations Observatory probes, dubbed Stereo A and Stereo B, follow orbits simply ahead and behind the Earth to offer a stereoscopic sentiment of it all .( Hence the acronym “Stereo.” So punny, NASA .) ” Until Stereo, all we had were flat images, ” says Eric Christian, an astrophysicist in the heliophysics division of NASA’s Goddard Space Center.” So we couldnt insure things like solar flares, ribbons, prominences in 3-D. ”

Stereo B ran darknes two summers ago( we get why they didn’t change the name to Mono, but it still feels like a missed possibility ), but NASA considers the mission asuccess. Stereo’s dual-angle imaging ability helped confirmthat solar breeze is solar plasma floating too far from home: As the pulling of the sun’s magnetic field weakens, the plasma actsmore like a gas, streaming out to fill the space around it.

Coronal mass expulsions are similar, but more forceful.” Coronal mass ejections are billions of tons of material leaving the sunlight at a million miles an hour. So if solar breeze is a constant background ocean, coronal mass expulsions are waves on top of that, ” says Alex Young, another astrophysicist in the heliophysics division at Goddard.” We have a much better understanding of their structure, how they travel, after being able to see them in detail with Stereo. ”

The goal with solar energy particles–charged particles accelerated to virtually the speed of light by shock wave coming off a coronal mass ejection–was similar: figure out how these things move, and where.” The particles interact with the sun’s magnetic fields as they travel along, they dont have a straight road, ” Young says. Rather than flowing straight out in a targeted explode, the particles fan out from the sunshine latitudinally, like buckshot.” We were really surprised to find the particles at both crafts, ” Young says. If the mission weren’t broadcasting in stereo, scientists wouldn’t have fully understood the particles’ trajectory.

These insights are more than academic.Coronal mass ejections and solar energy particles are electromagnetic, and threaten any technology in their track.” When spacecraft are bombarded, they can get charged up, and it’s like running sock feet across the carpet and touching a doorknob, ” Young says.” They will randomly discharge and knock out systems. ” Stereo plays a key role in a solar climate monitoring system that NASA and NOAA use to warn spacecraft and aircraft flying over the North Pole to the risk of solar flare or charged particles from an ejection.

Computers aren’t the only things scrambled by solar weather.If solar energy particles sound a little like cosmic radiation to you, it’s because they behave in similar ways–in space, and in the body. Like any radioactive particle, they wreak havoc on DNA, and the solar energy can be so intense that it causes radioactivity poisoning. Stereo’s advance weather warnings are an important cue for cosmonauts on the International Space Station to shield themselves.

Not to say that solar climate is all about demise and destruction. Billions of years ago, the sunlight was much dimmer, and emitted farless illumination. That’s puzzled scientists: To get life running, you need energy, and it didn’t seem like aweaker sunshine could provide enough to kickstart the process.” People have theorized about lightning, but people are beginning to think about the sunlight being more active then, ” Young says. And an active sunlight is one that’s spewing out a lot of coronal mass expulsions and charged particles. So it’s possible that those energetic particles could have been bombarding Earth, furnishing the energy to give priobiotic material a nudge in the right direction. Seems like staring into the sun might have been a good thing after all.

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