mountain profile Institute for Astronomy University of Hawaii

Scientists Tune In to Solar Storms

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October 7, 2013


Dr. Jason Byrne
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Ms. Louise Good
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the sun
An image of the sun's million degree atmosphere taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory while orbiting Earth. Large loops of hot plasma rise from the sun's surface and erupt into space, causing solar storms as they move through the solar system and impact Earth. This creates adverse "space weather" conditions, leading to increased radiation levels that can affect telecommunications, reroute polar flights, and produce spectacular auroras. Credit: NASA/SDO.

If your cell phone is dropping calls, the problem may be radio waves from the sun. Our nearest star sometimes unleashes huge eruptions of hot gas, called solar storms, that carry billions of tons of matter in our direction. These storms can be accompanied by solar radio bursts, which can damage many of the technologies that we rely on in our everyday lives.

A recent study by scientists in Ireland and Hawaii shows that solar storms create huge shock waves that race through the solar atmosphere at millions of miles per hour. As they do, they can accelerate electrons to huge energies, which then produce radio waves.

Radio bursts from solar storms can adversely affect both satellite and terrestrial communications. In fact, mobile phone networks can experience more dropped calls during periods of increased solar activity. Despite decades of study, the link between solar storms and solar radio bursts had remained unclear until this study.

“The study of solar storms is often very challenging because of the limited ways to observe them from Earth. This is now being overcome with the use of such missions as NASA’s STEREO and Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft that provide high-resolution images from different locations in space, allowing 3-D imaging of solar eruptions,” says Dr. Jason Byrne, a postdoctoral scientist at Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and a member of the study team.

The new study combining multiple spacecraft data with solar radio burst detections from antennas in Ireland gives an insight into the fundamental physics of these solar storms. This allows scientists to investigate how solar storms move through space and predict whether or not they will hit Earth and cause severe space weather conditions in our upper atmosphere.

The team, led by Prof. Peter Gallagher at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, published their findings this week in Nature Physics. “What we have found is fascinating – a real insight into how solar radio bursts are created,” said Prof. Gallagher. “Using antennas in radio-quiet locations in Ireland combined with methods of 3-D imaging from spacecraft orbiting the sun, we have identified a missing link between solar storms and radio bursts.”

The results of the study not only give an insight into the fundamental physics of massive explosions on the sun, but enable scientists to better understand how the sun affects Earth and potentially impacts technology and our daily lives.

Founded in 1967, the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa conducts research into galaxies, cosmology, stars, planets, and the sun. Its faculty and staff are also involved in astronomy education, deep space missions, and in the development and management of the observatories on Haleakala and Mauna Kea. The Institute operates facilities on the islands of Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii.