BOULDER, Colo. — For the first time ever, scientists have captured the entire life cycle a solar flare. The new report by the National Center for Atmospheric Science (NCAR) in Boulder, includes a stunning animation.
The green represents the hottest plasma, at more than 10 million degrees Kelvin. The red is between 1 and 10 million Kelvin, and the violet is cooler plasma, which is still close to 1 million Kelvin.
What is a solar flare?
“Sometimes the sun just builds up a lot of energy which is released in a very short time, and a solar flare is essentially this very intense magnetic energy release,” Matthias Rempel, a solar scientists with NCAR, said.
Where do they form?
"The magnetic field builds up in the solar convection zone 10,000 kilometers below the surface of the sun," Rempel said. "Then it breaks through the visible surface. That's when you see the dark areas called sun spots. From there it pushes out about 40,000 kilometers into the solar atmosphere, known as the corona.
How was the animation made?
Rempel along with Mark Cheung with Lockheed Martin were the main authors of the study. The animation is from a computer model they created to handle vast amount of data involving the physics surrounding a solar flare.
The data came from an actual solar flare recorded in March 2014.
"All the information we get from the sun comes in the form of light. The full spectrum from radio waves to x-rays," Rempel said. "Information like the temperature, and density of the solar gas, is all encoded in the radiation that we get from the sun in different wavelengths."
First of it's kind model
Rempel said this is the first time the entire life cycle of a solar flare has been captured in a single comprehensive computer model.
"We needed a model that was happy to resolve a vast separation of time scales and length scales, and many different physical regimes. So we had to come up with some innovative ways to do this that were not too overwhelming for the super computers we have today," Rempel said.
"One of the innovative ingredients we added to the model was something that magnetospheric people have been using for 40 years. A mathematical technique which allowed us to compress the difference in time scales between the layers without losing accuracy."
Why is this important?
Rempel said that solar flares can trigger many other different processes which can impact the earth. Coronal mass ejections (CME) are often associated with solar flares.
"A CME is essentially a bubble of hot gas that is ejected when the magnetic field reorganized in the corona. When this bubble finally reaches the earth, it can impact the magnetosphere, that leads to changes in the earths magnetic field, which then can induce currents which can damage our power grids," Rempel said.
"These CME's also contains a lot of very energetic particles which can be a hazard for both satellites and humans in space," Rempel said.
Rempel said now that they know it can be done, the next step will be to model a solar flare as it begins in real time.The sun is currently in a low point of solar activity called a solar minimum, but activity is expected to increase again in a couple of years.
“That actually gives us time to improve our model and get it ready, and when the sun is ready to become active again, we are ready to also model it,” Rempel said.