TCD physicists chase solar storms with NASA satellites

21 Sep 2010

A team of researchers from the School of Physics and the Trinity Centre for High Performance Computing at Trinity College Dublin have this week announced new insights into the mechanisms by which solar storms travel from the sun to the earth.

“Solar storms are enormous eruptions of hot gas from the surface of the sun into the solar system, and once launched, they travel at millions of kilometres per hour and contain billions of tons of hot solar gas,” explained Dr Peter Gallagher, a senior lecturer in the School of Physics.

“At earth, these streams of energetic atomic particles can produce magical auroral displays, which can be visible in Ireland and sometimes as far south as the Mediterranean during periods of high solar activity.

“Spectacular as these displays may be, solar storms can cause interruptions in telecommunication and global positioning systems, and in some cases render satellites inoperable. Closer to home, it has recently been shown that electric power-distribution networks, including EirGrid, are affected by fluctuations in solar activity,” Gallagher said.

The TCD team used the twin views of NASA’s STEREO satellites to reconstruct the actual path of a solar storm as it travelled to earth from the surface of the sun.

“We used advanced image analysis techniques to identify and track solar storms in STEREO images,” explained Jason Byrne, a PhD research student at Trinity’s School of Physics.

“Our results become most apparent using 3D visualisation software in the Trinity Centre for High Performance Computing, which enabled us to work out the actual 3D path of an earth-directed solar storm. This is the first time this has been done in this manner.”

What is particularly surprising about the TCD team’s results is that solar storms do not have to travel out from the sun along straight lines.

“Nature is not always as simple as you first suspect”, said Byrne. “Our 3D visualisations show that solar storms can actually be deflected from high solar latitudes and therefore end up impacting the earth and other planets in the solar system.”

Solar weather forecasting assistance

The ability to reconstruct the path of a solar storm through space in 3D could be of great benefit to forecasters of space weather at earth.

“These results will enable us to better predict the arrival time and impact of solar storms at earth,” according to Dr Alex Young, a STEREO senior scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

“Furthermore, the image processing techniques that the TCD team have developed in collaboration with NASA Goddard can be used in applications ranging from surveillance to medical diagnostics.”

The TCD team was primarily funded by Science Foundation Ireland. “It is essential to Ireland’s increasing international profile in science and innovation that the Irish Government continues to invest in pure and applied research. Without it, Ireland will not have the technological edge that a small country such as ours needs in an increasingly competitive international marketplace,” Gallagher concluded.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years