#LoveIrishResearch BLOG: Threats from a star

To help celebrate our December #LoveIrishResearch theme of 'Our Universe', Dr Eoin Carley has written a blog about his research on the solar origins of adverse space weather. Eoin is an ELEVATE MCSA COFUND Fellow and member of the Astrophysics Research Group at Trinity College Dublin.

Over 150 million kilometres away from Earth, deep in the atmosphere of the sun, a storm is ready to erupt. It’s been developing for days, but now, over a matter of minutes, the energy equivalent to 100 million hydrogen bombs is released. This heats the sun’s atmosphere to temperatures in excess of 20 million degrees Celsius, ejects billions of tons of electrically charged gas into the solar system and accelerates particles to near light-speed. This isn’t a rare event. It happens daily, and makes the sun the most energetic and violent object in our solar system.

Being so close to such enormous amounts of energy means we get to study some of the most fundamental processes in the universe, including how matter behaves in extreme environments. At the same time, our proximity to such a powerful object means there is a practical threat to our everyday lives.

If such a solar storm is directed at Earth, it can damage satellites, cause interruptions to electricity grids across the planet, bring down GPS systems, or even cause a radiation hazard to astronauts during space-walk as well as passengers on flights close to the Earth’s poles. Hence there is a need to constantly observe, study and understand the solar atmosphere and any potentially threatening activity taking place within it. The understanding and forecasting of such threats comprises a new and burgeoning science called ‘space weather’.

The solar physics group at Trinity College Dublin are part of the international effort to develop the science of space weather. We use space-based observatories of NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) to track and study solar storms from their very beginnings on the solar surface to their arrival at Earth. As part of the group, my research in particular focuses on the origins of the energetic particles in the solar atmosphere, aiding in the forecasting of any radiation hazard for airline passengers or astronauts.

Solar physics and space weather research in Ireland is developing at a rapid pace, and as part of this effort, a consortium of Irish universities and research institutes are now constructing a state-of-the-art telescope in Birr, Co. Offaly, known as the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR). LOFAR is one of the biggest scientific projects in Europe, including stations in 8 European countries with a central hub in the Netherlands. These stations employ the use of supercomputers to combine separate sites into a telescope that has the effective size of the European continent, providing some of the most detailed observations of the universe to date. When telescopes such as this are combined with space-based observatories operated by NASA and ESA, it allows us to view the Universe and the sun in unprecedented detail. Such observations allow us to study the conditions of the Sun’s atmosphere which produce violent explosions.

There are myriad benefits to living with a star; it is the ultimate source of energy and life on Earth. But it’s only in recent decades that we’ve begun to recognise the inherent dangers that come with living next to such a powerful astronomical object. With new developments like LOFAR, Ireland can be at the forefront of solar physics and space weather research, helping to forecast and mitigate any threat to technology or life on Earth.

Image: 'Origin of energetic particles on the sun using LOFAR and NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. This research was funded by the Irish Research Council and published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, 2015'.