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Solar Silence is No Cause for Alarm, Say Space Scientists

Story supplied by LU Press Office

An ultraviolet image of a coronal mass ejection, blasting enormous bubbles of magnetic plasma into space (image: NASA) An ultraviolet image of a coronal mass ejection, blasting enormous bubbles of magnetic plasma into space (image: NASA)

The sun is quieter than it has been for nearly a Century with fewer sunspots and a drop in solar wind pressure. But space scientists at Lancaster University say it is nothing to worry about.

Over a thousand astronomers have been discussing the latest phase in the sun's activity at The Royal Astronomical Society's 'European Week of Astronomy and Space Science' at the University of Hertfordshire.

Dr Jim Wild of Lancaster University's Space Plasma Environment and Radio Science Group at InfoLab21 was at the conference. He said the current quiet period had gone on longer than usual but could in fact offer researchers new opportunities to study the sun.

Dr Wild said: "The sun normally undergoes an 11-year cycle. At its peak the sun's magnetic field is at its strongest, it shoots out more flares and material into interplanetary space, and dozens of sunspots can be seen. It then goes through a period of calm when this activity is markedly reduced."

The number of sunspots in recent months has been the lowest since 1913. There has also been a 50-year low in solar wind pressure and a 55-year low in radio emissions.

"This behaviour isn't totally out of the ordinary, the solar minima of 1901 and 1913 were longer that the current lull, but this is the deepest minimum since the beginning of the space age. Space scientists are really excited about the opportunity to study the quiet sun and the impact this lull will have on the Earth with state-of-the-art of space- and ground-based experiments."

Meanwhile, Dr Wild and his colleagues in The Space Plasma Environment and Radio Science Group - part of the Department of Communication Systems - have recently received more than £900k from the Science and Technology Facilities Council to carry out further investigation into the space environment.

The three-year projects are:

  • Dr Mick Denton was awarded £288K to investigate plasma physics in near-Earth space in preparation for the launch of NASA's "Radiation Belts Storm Probe" mission to the Earth's Van Allen radiation belts in 2012.
  • Dr Jim Wild was awarded £294k to support research which could open the door to potential technologies for future Mars exploration missions. The project will model the physical interaction between the upper atmosphere of Mars and the interplanetary environment.
  • Professor Mike Kosch was awarded £321k to produce artificial Auroras -similar to the Northern Lights - using the EISCAT high-power radar facility in the Arctic Circle, North Norway. This will enable researchers to investigate magnetic forces as they interact with high energy particles from the sun in the earth's upper atmosphere.

Tue 28 April 2009

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