New space weather research grant awarded to Armagh Observatory

Armagh Observatory, 14th August 2015: Armagh Observatory’s Leverhulme Postdoctoral Researcher Dr Maria Madjarska, who has been working for the last two years with the Observatory’s head of solar physics, Professor Gerry Doyle, has recently received a grant from the Royal Society to develop a new interdisciplinary project aimed at improving understanding of how changes in the Sun’s activity affect Earth’s near-space environment and hence conditions here on Earth

The normally nearly constant power of the Sun, which is mostly emitted in the form of heat and light, is the main factor that determines the conditions necessary to sustain life on Earth. However, recent observations, particularly those from space, have shown that the Sun is a highly variable star, both in terms of its magnetic field and at short wavelengths invisible to the human eye. These changes manifest as time-variable sunspots, flares, jets of various sizes and temperatures, and massive ejections of material into the corona that ultimately propagate through interplanetary space via the solar wind all the way to Earth.

The entire inner solar system is immersed in a hot, rarefied flow of energetic particles and electromagnetic fields originating from the Sun, called the solar wind. The solar wind creates the heliosphere, a vast bubble of gas that extends into the interstellar medium and determines Earth’s near-space environment, that is, space weather. The Earth’s magnetic field and associated magnetosphere protect us from the solar wind. In Earth’s polar regions, however, Earth’s magnetic field can connect with the interplanetary magnetic field, allowing the solar wind to interact directly with the Earth’s atmosphere, the effects of which we see on Earth as an aurora.

The new grant will support a series of exchange visits over the next year between Maria Madjarska, who is an expert in how explosions in the Sun’s upper atmosphere produce effects that can propagate into the solar wind and ultimately to Earth, and colleagues in Finland led by Dr Emilia Kilpua of the University of Helsinki. She has extensive experience in interplanetary studies of the solar wind and solar eruptions, all of which feeds into a greater understanding of how space weather interacts with changes in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. This area of solar physics research has important implications for understanding the new discipline of space weather, including an understanding of how our variable Sun may affect long-term climate change.

Head of solar physics at the Armagh Observatory, Professor Gerry Doyle, said: “This work also has interesting implications for understanding weather on other worlds, for example our recent detection of an aurora 10,000 times brighter than Earth’s Northern Lights on a brown dwarf.”

The goal of this new work is to understand the origin of the solar wind and the causes of its variability. A key step is to initiate a multi-disciplinary collaboration into the origin of the slow solar wind by combining expertise on dynamic phenomena recorded in multi-satellite data throughout the entire solar atmosphere with expertise of making in-situ observations of the plasma ejections from the Sun that together make up the solar wind.

Gerry Doyle continued: “This work will involve dealing with a vast amount of data from different satellites, requiring expertise in a wide range of topics, hence the need for an international collaboration. It is yet another example of the high international esteem in which the Observatory is held, and how fundamental astronomical research often has important implications for all of us on Earth.”

Space weather impacts in many ways on modern society. These range from continental-scale impacts on core infrastructures such as telecommunications, power distribution networks and space-based navigation systems, to variable amounts of charged-particle radiation caused by solar storms and experienced by frequent fliers on long-haul flights. Madjarska’s and Kilpua’s new research will ultimately contribute to a greater understanding of the interaction between the solar wind and Earth’s near-space environment, including its outer magnetosphere, ionosphere and upper atmosphere, and show how space weather may affect the weather we experience much lower down in the atmosphere, possibly including the effects of the Sun on long-term climate change as well.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION PLEASE CONTACT: Maria Madjarska or Gerry Doyle at the Armagh Observatory, College Hill, Armagh, BT61 9DG. Tel.: 028-3752-2928; FAX: 028-3752-7174; E-mail: madj@arm.ac.uk and jgd@arm.ac.uk; http://star.arm.ac.uk/.

Last Revised: 2015 August 14th