Radio Ga Ga in Ireland today as researchers link up solar storms and radio bursts

7 Oct 2013

The lower atmosphere of the Sun imaged by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. A large eruption many times the size of the Earth can be seen on the left side of the sun

A group of Irish scientists hailing from Ireland, the UK and Hawaii are saying that they have found – for the first time – a direct link between solar storms, shock waves and solar radio bursts. Solar physicist Prof Peter Gallagher spoke to Carmel Doyle about how these scientists have been using a radio observatory at Birr Castle in Co Offaly as part of this research, while also tapping into open data from NASA.

Their research has been published online in Nature Physics. The researchers spanned two continenets. As well as TCD, which led the research, they were based at University College London and University of Hawaii.

The findings of this research show that solar storms create huge shock waves that race through the solar atmosphere at millions of kilometres per hour, Gallagher said.

A solar physicist based at TCD School of Physics, Gallagher formerly worked at NASA space agency before returning home to Dublin, Ireland, along with his wife, the bat expert Prof Emma Teeling, who teaches at UCD.

And Gallagher has been teaching at TCD, and nurturing PhD students, ever since.

Gallagher was in La Palma on the Canary Islands today working on solar data from the massive solar telescope that’s based there, when he took the call from

But first off, what exactly is a solar maximum? Broken down, the sun is just after finishing up its 11-year solar cycle – that’s when it reaches its solar maximum.

And this is when things like solar storms can happen, sparking solar flares that can often cause power outages and affect telecommunications on planet Earth.

Such flares can accelerate electrons to huge energies, which then produce radio waves.

But beautiful things can happen too. Such solar flares can also spark off the Northern Lights – think of the Aurora Borealis in places like northern Norway, Sweden and Finland.

Just last week, on 29 September, one of these solar storms sparked off Northern Lights that were seen by people in north-west Ireland, mainly Donegal.

On the flip side, these solar flares can also have more “sinister” effects, Gallagher said, sometimes unleashing huge eruptions of hot gas, called solar storms, which carry billions of tonnes of matter travelling at millions of km an hour in the direction of Earth.

Such storms can be accompanied by solar radio bursts, which can cause damaging effects on many of the technologies that we rely on in our everyday lives, he said.

Meanwhile, at Trinity, Eoin Carley, an Irish Research Council PhD student at the School of Physics, said this afternoon that radio bursts from solar storms can have adverse effects on both satellite and terrestrial communications.

“In fact, mobile phone networks can experience increased dropped-calls during periods of increased solar activity,” said Carley. He was the first author on a recent paper on this topic in Nature Physics.

So, just how did all of this research come about in the first place?

Despite decades of study, the link between solar storms and solar radio bursts has remained unclear.

This propelled Gallagher to set up a radio observatory at Birr Castle in the midlands of Ireland to monitor solar radio bursts.

“What we have found is fascinating – a real insight into how solar radio bursts are created,” he said.

“Using antennas at Trinity’s Rosse Observatory in Birr Castle together with images from NASA’s STEREO and Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft, we have identified a missing link between solar storms and radio bursts.”

This research was supported by the Irish Research Council, which funds research and scholarship relevant to all aspects of social, cultural and economic development in Ireland.

Gallagher said the researchers who worked on this research were also grateful to NASA for its open-access data policy.

Carley, meanwhile, said that the results not only give an insight into the fundamental physics of explosions on the sun, but the enable us to better understand how the sun affects the Earth and potentially its impact on our daily lives.

Gallagher said that the research has been all the more special as that each of the researchers involved in it hail from Ireland, and were former students at TCD. He said it is very difficult to get published in Nature Physics, and was very proud of all of the researchers involved, be they in Ireland, the UK or Hawaii.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic