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12.08.2014
With new tools, scientists are striving to better grasp our star and its potentially widely destructive solar storms. It contains 99.9 percent of all the matter in our solar system and sheds hot plasma at nearly a million miles an hour. HOLLY GILBERT (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center): That is really a quantum leap in solar physics, a continuous eye on the sun. BILL MURTAGH (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Space Weather Center): Repair could take weeks, months and even, worse case scenario, up to 10 years for a full recovery. JIM GREEN (NASA Planetary Science): If you can imagine a world without electricity, you're really going back in time.
Although 93 million miles away, forces here can impact Earth in surprising and destructive ways. BILL MURTAGH: We have to determine when that thing is going to impact Earth's magnetic field. Recently, NASA's Jim Green finds evidence that an even bigger solar storm hit Earth in 1859. JIM GREEN: What we found was the granddaddy of geomagnetic storms, and that was just 150 years ago. JIM GREEN: One, for instance, because of the induced current on their system, overheated the battery and started a fire, nearly burned down the telegraph office.
NARRATOR: Green uncovers numerous reports of auroras seen, not only across the United States, but around the world. JIM GREEN: Those two storms were not only enormous, but they happened one right after the other. BILL MURTAGH: If we had a geomagnetic storm of that intensity today, the National Academy suggested that the impact on critical infrastructure could be catastrophic.
BILL MURTAGH: Repair could take weeks, months and even, worse case scenario, the National Academy suggested up to 10 years for a full recovery. JIM GREEN: If that occurred, if you can imagine a world without electricity, we're really going back in time. Yet, for something that has such an overwhelming influence on our lives, the sun is mysterious. These are some of the mysteries scientists must understand to protect us from the sun's darker side. SARAH GIBSON (National Center for Atmospheric Research, High Altitude Observatory): The sun is elusive. SCOTT MCINTOSH (National Center for Atmospheric Research, High Altitude Observatory): Crazy. DEAN PESNELL (NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center): Until the 1960s, much of solar physics relied on things that were like solar dermatology.
NARRATOR: But as physicists study the sun in more detail, they make a surprising discovery. Our sun vibrates like a giant pipe organ, but instead of air producing the notes, churning gases deep inside send sound waves rippling through its interior. DEAN PESNELL: Because a sound wave changes as it moves through different material, we can look at the different frequencies and determine what's happening inside the sun.
TODD HOEKSEMA: Once the helioseismology came along, we could not only see what the surface was, but we can actually tell what the physical processes were underneath. NARRATOR: As the sun formed, hydrogen gas at its heart was crushed under the weight of the material above.
Under tremendous pressure, protons in the plasma fuse together, releasing photons, minuscule packets of heat and light. LUC PETERSON: That much mass into energy is the equivalent of 10-billion hydrogen bombs being created every second. TODD HOEKSEMA: In that particular part, there's no energy being generated, but the energy is transmitted by the radiation, so that's why we call it the radiative zone, not too surprisingly. TODD HOEKSEMA: So, imagine that you're in a crowded room, and you're trying to make your way through, and you greet other people. So, it takes you a long time to get from one place in the room to another, because you are just kind of meandering your way around the room. NARRATOR: Though moving at the speed of light, 186,000 miles a second, it takes photons over 100,000 years to cross the zone. NARRATOR: During this short period, heat from the photons sends plasma here into perpetual motion, a maelstrom of churning, 125,000 miles thick. NARRATOR: These incredible images reveal convection at the sun's surface, rising and sinking plasma, that creates a mesmerizing structure called granulation. NARRATOR: Unimpeded, the trip from the core to the surface would take the photons a matter of seconds. Understanding the sun's destructive power requires 24-hour precision surveillance, something that, until recently, was impossible to achieve. TODD HOEKSEMA: We started looking at the first pictures, and it was almost in focus, and as soon as we focused it, it was just beautiful.
KAREL SCHRIJVER: Now, in order to look at the Solar Dynamics Observatory images we're bringing in every day, we've built this very special wall, which is nine high-definition television screens together, that can display these images, so that the instrument and the display system together are an entirely new way of looking at the sun.
HOLLY GILBERT: This is an absolutely amazing time for solar physics, because of these beautiful high resolution images that allow us to understand better the physics behind what's going on when solar storms erupt.
BILL MURTAGH: We won't call it the perfect storm yet, or anything, but conditions are lining up for some significant space weather. NARRATOR: Their models show trajectory and speed, but the big unknown for Murtagh is how powerful the waves will be when they hit. KAREL SCHRIJVER: We've essentially learned that it takes two things to make a star magnetic. TODD HOEKSEMA: The motions there, the convection, the differential rotation, the motion from equator to pole are driving a new force. NARRATOR: The Holy Grail for scientists is understanding exactly how this dynamo generates solar storms. NARRATOR: Tracking invisible field lines is normally impossible, but plasma plays a critical role. HOLLY GILBERT: This is beautiful, because the hot gas outlines the magnetic field lines that we would otherwise not be able to see, and here, you can see, even, a twisting structure, as some of the mass drains back down to the surface, and a lot of it escapes in the eruption. SCOTT MCINTOSH: Understanding it's essential, if we want to get to the bottom of how the sun drives space weather and the impact of the sun on the earth. NARRATOR: The fact that the corona is so much hotter than the surface flies in the face of physics.


NARRATOR: Recently Japanese investigators observe high velocity jets of plasma, shooting up from the near surface. SCOTT MCINTOSH: Lo and behold, we actually managed to join the dots and see, "Yeah, these objects that we could see moving out of the lower atmosphere at high speeds, kind of like these licks of flame, really were reaching a couple-million degrees.
NARRATOR: They've shown that the plasma jets, accelerating upwards from near the sun's surface, generate tremendous heat.
At the National Center for Atmospheric Research, this violent event is captured by satellites. NARRATOR: By enhancing the picture and slowing it down, it's possible to see the shockwave moving at over 2,000,000 miles per hour.
Though we have a better understanding of what causes solar storms and how they reach us, there is still a final pressing problem. HOLLY GILBERT: Trying to predict when solar storms are going to occur on the sun really requires a lot of detective work. NARRATOR: The best clue comes from these, sun spots, dark patches which can linger on the sun's surface for weeks at a time. SARAH GIBSON: A sunspot is a massive region, several times the size of the earth, which appears on the sun as a dark spot.
NARRATOR: The strong magnetic fields, which create sunspots, are the breeding ground for solar storms.
NARRATOR: The constant churning and twisting inside the sun creates a powerful dynamo, the biggest electrical generator in the solar system. NARRATOR: Prior to the solar storm of February 15, 2011, things were pretty quiet on the sun. Just a few days ago, Bill Murtagh and the team at the Space Weather Prediction Center witness the turn. BILL MURTAGH: In the next couple of minutes here, we are going to have to make a decision and make the prediction that this coronal mass ejection is going to arrive at whatever time tomorrow. NARRATOR: On the day before the waves hit, a British astronomer observes a giant sunspot group light up with two massive flares. NARRATOR: Today's solar scientists believe it's not "if" but "when" the next big one will strike. Go inside a photovoltaic cell and see how solar panels work to convert sunlight into electricity. Explore the planets, visit the moon, and gaze at the stars in this 3-D interactive model of the solar system. National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Google and Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Today, after years of relative calm, a satellite detects something, a dramatic explosion on the sun's surface. Their simulation shows it racing out from the sun, on the left, towards the small dot on the right, Earth.
First is a solar flare, releasing an outburst of x-rays that can reach Earth within minutes. Until recently, seeing inside the sun was impossible, understanding its internal processes a pipe dream, but an accidental discovery changes everything.
By studying sound waves passing through the earth's crust, they can see the layers below our feet, a technique called "seismology." Similarly, sound waves moving through the sun's interior reveal how it's made up. So, if you're going to travel into the core of the sun, the plasma would be 15-million degrees.
Eventually temperature and pressure rose so high, the hydrogen atoms broke apart into electrons and protons, creating plasma.
An unimaginable number of photons are made every second, generating the sun's incredible power, some of which reaches us as sunlight.
In the core of the sun, you've got this pressure from all of this fusion pushing outwards, and the sun is huge, so you have all this gravitational pressure pushing downwards. And each person you greet, you have to say hello to, and then you move off in another direction. So, the same way, the photons in the inside of the sun, they don't have a preferred direction, all they want to do is they want to be moving and they want to be greeting other particles. Eventually, the photons reach a boundary where pressures drop again, the plasma thins, and moving through it gets easier.
So, it's as if, all of a sudden, someone said, "Lunch," and all the particles decided, "Oh, we all have to go this direction." You still have to wait in line to get out, so it takes a month to get from the bottom of the convection zone to the surface, but it's a relatively short period.
Once you get to the surface of the sun, it just takes eight minutes to get to where you can see it.
In reality, the sunlight that shines on us today may have been created during the last ice age.
We knew we were going to open our doors to actually let the sunlight into the instrument for the first time. Previous satellites only revealed a portion of the sun in high resolution, now they see it in mind-boggling detail. And that is really a quantum leap in solar physics, being able to see all of that all the time: a continuous eye on the sun. We're all familiar with magnets, they produce an invisible force that pushes and pulls on charged particles. Magnetic field lines normally run from pole to pole, but with all the turmoil in the convection zone, that pattern can't last. The magnetic field inside the sun is amplified, is strengthened by the rotating motions and the sheering motions and the churning motions inside the sun. Some pass directly into space as sunlight, but in the process, that surging energy disturbs the convection zone, generating a magnetic field. It's made of superhot plasma that blisters at over 3,000,000 degrees Fahrenheit, 300 times hotter than the sun's surface.
It's constantly pushing on the plasma draped on the field lines, billowing them out like sails pulling on a mast. To do that, we block out the light from the disk of the sun, and that's this little circle, here.
Basically we're looking for clues in observations to tell us when potential storms might occur. It's dark because it's relatively cool, compared to its surroundings, and it's cool because the magnetic fields are so strong that they're suppressing the flow of heat from below. And since we now know that sunspots are associated with strong magnetic fields, this tells us that the sun's magnetic fields are, likewise, going through a cycle.


The magnetic field lines it produces get so wound up that, roughly every eleven years, the magnetic poles of the sun reverse. During solar maximum, it can get very angry, and it can throw off solar storms that are sometimes directed at the earth. But that outburst marks an ominous turning point: the sun's magnetic activity is winding up again, as it heads toward solar max. We'll see moderate storming levels, which is good enough to produce some aurora borealis down in the United States, along the Canadian border, the northern tier states. NASA's Jim Green discovered it while researching a book on the American Civil War at the Library of Congress. And if it burns out transformers that are hard to replace, we may be without electricity in many areas for a very long period of time. We are beginning to understand it from the inside out, but its unpredictable personality means there will always be uncertainty when living with a star. A violent solar storm that would dwarf Earth is erupting, releasing a massive shockwave, hurtling towards us at over a million miles an hour. Other reports tell of a more harmful impact on the lone electrical system of the day, the telegraph.
So, there's an urgency in understanding what it is that the sun is doing, what's it going to do next?
We marvel when it's eclipsed during the day and when its power lights up the night sky with dancing curtains of light, the aurora.
It's been shining for over four-billion years and will do so for at least four-billion more. And on the sun, that corresponds to a wave that goes very deep into the sun and brings back the information from deep down in the sun.
During thunderstorms, electric charges build up, creating lightning bolts that reach tens of thousands of degrees. This atomic alchemy converts over 4,000,000 tons of mass into energy, every second, in an endless loop. It's been doing it for four-billion years, and it's going to continue to do so long after I'm gone. And so, you have gravity pushing down and the sun trying to blow itself apart from the inside, and it is this beautiful balancing act between the two that keeps the sun in one piece. Now, each photon begins a tedious journey through the sun's thickest layer of plasma, a region called the "radiative zone." Although squeezed less than at the sun's center, the plasma is still very dense, and photons struggle to move through it.
When it gets to the top, it cools off, and when it cools, it gets more dense and falls back down.
And the faster it spins, the more active it becomes, and wherever those two things, the bubbling and the spinning, can interact, that's where we see the strongest magnetic activity in stars. Analyzing sound waves inside the sun reveals that the plasma layers beneath the surface also spin at different speeds. There's a dynamo at work here, a dynamo that's generating a force that we actually experience here on the earth. It wants to expand upwards, and it does, until it pokes out through the surface of the sun. But what that allows us to do is see this extremely faint high-speed thing, shooting away from the sun. After that, calmer magnetic activity prevails and fewer sunspots form, a period called "solar minimum." But because of the sun's turbulent nature, the field gradually winds up again. And the more we look at some of these historic events, the more we get a deeper appreciation for what we need to know. It's a wave of billions of tonnes of electrically charged particles, seen here in this repeating image, as it ripples away from the eye of the storm.
And at the conferences they all talked about it, and they harrumphed, but what it turned out to be was just sound waves.
But we are less familiar with the sun's magnetic power, which researchers believe plays a major role in driving solar storms.
The charged particles funnel down into the atmosphere, electrifying it like a giant neon sign, producing dazzling aurora displays.
It takes several months to make them, and if you burn out half of them, we're going to be shooting squirrels and chopping wood out the back yard for a long period of time, just to survive. Our sun has a dark side, its violent storms capable of taking down the electrical grids that power our daily lives.
Together, they could hit like a cosmic tsunami, delivering a surge of radiation and an electrical spike of trillions of watts, potentially crashing the power grid. And on the sun, that's telling us information about very close to the surface of the sun, not very deep at all into the sun. We have the core of the sun heating the material at the bottom of the convection zone, material expands, and it carries the energy upward, until it gets to the surface.
But, at just over a million degrees, the super-hot plasma rippling away from the eye of the storm is much clearer. The interior of the sun is a place of spectacular turmoil, turmoil that's the key to the sun's magnetism.
As you go in close, it's definitely warm, but as I pull away, it actually gets warmer still. If the wave's positive pole lines up with the Earth's positive pole, most of power of the storm will be repulsed, but if opposite poles line up, the plasma the waves are carrying will hit with full force. Now, with the help of new spacecraft and Earth-based telescopes, scientists are seeing the sun as they never have before and even recreating what happens at its very center in labs here on Earth. Millions of tonnes of plasma spill towards the equator and a powerful electric surge pulses over the globe.
Their work will help us understand aspects of the sun that have puzzled scientists for decades.
The energy released heats the plasma to millions of degrees, resulting in a spectacular solar flare. But more critically, it may help us predict and track solar storms that have the power to zap our power grid, shut down telecommunications, and ground global air travel for days, weeks, or even longer. Such storms have happened before—but never in the modern era of satellite communication.



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