Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Sun is About to Flip, Magnetically Speaking

According to the measurements from NASA-supported observatories, something big is about to happen—the sun's vast magnetic field is about to flip. Observations indicate the sun is no more than 3 to 4 months away from a complete magnetic field reversal. And this change is expected to have ripple effects throughout the solar system.

Handle on the Sun (click to enlarge)
The above image was taken September 14, 1999, by the Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (EIT). Note the huge, handle-shaped prominence. Taken in the 304 angstrom wavelength, prominences are huge clouds of relatively cool dense plasma suspended in the Sun's hot, thin corona. At times, they can erupt, escaping the Sun's atmosphere. Emission in this spectral line shows the upper chromosphere at a temperature of about 60,000 degrees K. Every feature in the image traces magnetic field structure. The hottest areas appear almost white, while the darker red areas indicate cooler temperatures. Image Credit: NASA/European Space Agency
The sun's magnetic field changes polarity approximately every 11 years. It happens at the peak of each solar cycle as the sun's inner magnetic dynamo re-organizes itself. The coming reversal will mark the midpoint of Solar Cycle 24. Half of 'Solar Max' will be behind us, with half yet to come.

The poles are a herald of change. The polar magnetic fields weaken, go to zero, and then emerge again with the opposite polarity. This process is a regular part of the solar cycle.

A reversal of the sun's magnetic field is, literally, a big event. The domain of the sun's magnetic influence (also known as the "heliosphere") extends billions of kilometers beyond Pluto. Changes to the field's polarity ripple all the way out to the Voyager probes, on the doorstep of interstellar space.

When solar physicists talk about solar field reversals, their conversation often centers on the "current sheet."  The current sheet is a sprawling surface jutting outward from the sun's equator where the sun's slowly-rotating magnetic field induces an electrical current.  The current itself is small, only one ten-billionth of an amp per square meter (0.0000000001 amps/m2), but there’s a lot of it: the amperage flows through a region 10,000 km thick and billions of kilometers wide.  Electrically speaking, the entire heliosphere is organized around this enormous sheet.

During field reversals, the current sheet becomes very wavy. These undulations have been likened to the seams on a baseball. As Earth orbits the sun, it dips in and out of the current sheet. Transitions from one side to another can stir up stormy space weather around our planet.

Cosmic rays are also affected. These are high-energy particles accelerated to nearly light speed by supernova explosions and other violent events in the galaxy.  Cosmic rays are a danger to astronauts and space probes, and some researchers say they might affect the cloudiness and climate of Earth. The current sheet acts as a barrier to cosmic rays, deflecting them as they attempt to penetrate the inner solar system. A wavy, crinkly sheet acts as a better shield against these energetic particles from deep space.

Observations show that the north pole has already changed sign, while the south pole will soon catch up. Once both poles are reversed, the second half of Solar Max will begin.


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