If we want to protect our way of life, it is paramount that we learn to forecast solar storms – yet predicting the Sun is particularly tricky. Now, a new discovery might help with that.
Astronomers have spotted a curious type of wave on the Sun that might play a crucial role in influencing solar phenomena like spots and flares. The waves are known as Rossby waves or planetary waves. On Earth, they are giant zigzag patterns in the high-altitude winds (like jet streams) that influence the weather significantly.
The study, published in Nature Astronomy, describes meandering magnetized activity on the Sun that behaves like the Rossby waves on Earth. The team used weather diagrams to model these waves and found links between the magnetic weather pattern and the extended solar cycle.
"The discovery of magnetized Rossby waves on the Sun offers the tantalizing possibility that we can predict space weather much further in advance," lead author Scott McIntosh, from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said in a statement.
The Rossby waves on Earth, showing a developing (a,b) and then released jet stream (c). Fred The Oyster via Wikimedia common CC-BY-SA-4.0
The observations were possible by combining data from the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and the two spacecraft that make the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) mission. These three state-of-the-art NASA spacecraft are located at different places in orbit around the Sun, which have allowed the team a truly global view of our star.
"By combining the data from all three satellites we can see the entire sun and that's important for studies like this because you want the measurements to all be at the same time," added Dean Pesnell, SDO project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. "They’re pushing the boundary of how we use solar data to understand the interior of the sun and where the magnetic field of the sun comes from."
Solar storms can damage electronics, and the potential effects of a severe event has governments across the world worried. The European Union has recently released a report on what should be done in preparation for such an event.
"Bad weather in space can hinder or damage satellite operations, and communication and navigation systems, as well as cause power-grid outages leading to tremendous socioeconomic losses,” said Ilia Roussev, program director in NSF's Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences. "Estimates put the cost of space weather hazards at $10 billion per year."
As there’s still a lot to learn, the team hope for a more ambitious mission to study the Sun. A constellation of satellites that could monitor it from many angles might be a good start.