Irish scientist may have found way of predicting solar flares

Research group from New Mexico university delivers insight into how flares occur

The sun emits a mid-level solar flare on its left side in 2014. File photograph: Nasa/Reuters

The sun emits a mid-level solar flare on its left side in 2014. File photograph: Nasa/Reuters

 

The sun is a benign star but at times it can blow its top, blasting out a solar flare that if aimed towards the earth can create problems for us. It can disturb radio communications and GPS systems and also affect orbiting satellites.

An Irish scientist is involved in a research group that believes it has figured out how these massive flares occur, and are now working to see if they can predict them.

It was a lucky break for the researchers when no fewer than three orbiting solar-watching missions all had a look at the one place at the one time and got an unprecedented view of a flare in action.

“You have to be watching at the right time, at the right angle, with the right instruments to see a [developing flare]now we only had models to explain what the sun was up to, he said. And even if their models seemed pretty sound, achieving that kind of observation and later analysis of the data makes them even more confident that their models are correct.

Solar flares have to do with powerful magnetic fields crossing the sun. When two fields come together they produce powerful electric currents. This is like a firework with a lit fuse because soon after forming the fields “reconnect” and a solar flare kicks off.

But what happens to the electric current or current sheets associated with the magnetic fields?

Confirm

The observations allowed them to confirm that the current sheets are part of the process and are there when reconnection fires off a flare. He and lead author Dr Chunming Zhu and colleagues published their findings on Tuesday in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“This was the missing aspect, the smoking gun, the thing that we knew was there but we had to find,” Prof McAteer said.

These new findings might open the way to being able to predict when flares are about to happen, he said. “We are confident the models are right and with that confidence that the models are correct maybe we can project into the future.”