New research places the sun's magnetic field close to the surface, upending decades of theories

New Research Places The Suns Magnetic Field Close To The Surface Upending Decades Of Theories

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New research indicates the sun’s magnetic field originates close to the surface and not deep within the star, according to findings published in the journal Nature. This upends decades of prevailing scientific thought that placed the field more than 130,000 miles below the surface of the sun. It also brings us closer to understanding the nature of the sun’s magnetic field, which has been on scientist’s minds since Galileo.

The study, led by Northwestern University and a team of international researchers, suggests that the magnetic field actually generates 20,000 miles below the surface. This was discovered after the team ran a series of complex calculations on a NASA supercomputer. It’s worth noting that these are just initial findings and more research is required to confirm the data.

The sun’s magnetic field fluctuates in a cycle that lasts 11 years. During the strongest part of this cycle, powerful winds and sunspots form at the solar equator, along with plumes of material that cause the aurora borealis here on Earth. Previous theories that place the magnetic field deeper within the sun have had a difficult time connecting these various solar phenomena. Scientists hope that, given further study, they’ll be able to use this theory to not only explain the creation of solar events, but more accurately predict when they will occur.

This could lead to more than just earlier predictions of the next aurora borealis event. The sun’s intense magnetic energy is also the source of solar flares and eruptions of plasma called coronal mass ejections. When these ejections travel toward Earth, all kinds of bad things happen. This famously occurred back in 1859, when a giant geomagnetic storm created the largest solar storm in recorded history.

This is called the Carrington Event, attributed to British astronomer Richard Christopher Carrington. The solar flare, which was actually a magnetic explosion on the sun’s surface, briefly outshone the sun and caused colored lights to erupt all over the planet, similar to the aurora borealis. It also supercharged telegraph cables, shocking operators, and set telegraph paper on fire. It was pretty nasty.

Now, this was 1859, before the modern use of electricity and before computers and all related technologies. If something like the Carrington Event were to occur today, we’d have it much worse. The emitted X-rays and ultraviolet light would interfere with electronics, radio and satellite signals. The event would cause a solar radiation storm, which would be deadly to astronauts not fully equipped with protective gear.

It would also lead a coronal mass ejection to bump up against Earth’s magnetic field, which would shut down power grids, cell phone satellites, modern cars and even airplanes. The resulting global power outages could last for months. Last month’s smallish (relatively speaking) storm messed with electronics and that was no Carrington-sized event. Even worse? We are absolutely due for this to happen. It’s basically a ticking time bomb.

So these findings could, in theory, be used to prepare new early warning methods for large-scale solar flares hitting Earth. Someday, we might have solar flare warnings alongside hurricane warnings and the like. The research has already demonstrated some interesting links between sunspots and the sun’s magnetic activity.

“We still don’t understand the sun well enough to make accurate predictions” of solar weather, lead study author Geoffrey Vasil of the University of Edinburgh told The Hill. These new findings “will be an important step toward finally resolving” this mysterious process, added co-author Daniel Lecoanet of Northwestern University.

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