Researchers have devised a new technique to analyze fast Coronal Mass Ejections, which are powerful ejections of magnetized matter from the Sun’s outer atmosphere.
The research team includes scientists from Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech), as well as collaborators from the Karl-Franzens University of Graz & the Kanzelhöhe Observatory (Austria), Jet Propulsion Laboratory of California Institute of Technology (USA), Helioresearch (USA), and Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Russia).
The study findings could be useful to gain better insights into and predict the most extreme space weather events and their capability to generate powerful geomagnetic storms that have a direct impact on the operation of engineering systems on Earth and in space. The study outcomes have been reported in The Astrophysical Journal.
In the solar system, Coronal Mass Ejections are one of the most energetic eruptive phenomena and the key source of significant space weather events. Enormous clouds of plasma and magnetic flux are emitted from the Sun’s atmosphere into the surrounding space at speeds varying from 100 to 3500 km/second.
Such gigantic solar plasma clouds and the associated strong shock waves could reach Earth within a day’s time, giving rise to intense geomagnetic storms that pose risks to astronauts, as well as technology on Earth and in space.
In 1859, one such most intense Space Weather event occurred, wherein the induced geomagnetic storm led to the collapse of the entire telegraph system in North America and Europe—the key communication means for business and personal contacts in those times. In case such an event was to occur at present, modern devices are not at all protected.
Humans could go without electricity, radio communications, television, and the Internet, which would result in substantial and cascading effects in several areas of the day-to-day lives of humans. In July 2012, there occurred on the Sun an energy explosion similar to the 19th-century event; however, humans were fortunate since the outbursts did not reach the Earth.
Certain experts explain that the damage from such an extreme event could lead to a loss worth several trillion dollars, and the restoration of the economy and infrastructure could need nearly a decade. Therefore, it is extremely important to understand and predict the most hazardous extreme events to protect technology and society against the global hazards of Space Weather.
This study was the result of a previous study by Dr Alexander Ruzmaikin, a former PhD student of Academician Yakov Zeldovich and Dr Joan Feynman, who has significantly contributed to the exploration of Sun-Earth relations, the solar wind, and its effect on the Earth magnetosphere. Dr Joan Feynman is the younger sister of Nobel Prize laureate Richard Feynman.
In this study, the researchers demonstrated that the most powerful and strongest geomagnetic storms are induced by fast Coronal Mass Ejections that interact with another Coronal Mass Ejection in the interplanetary space. Interplanetary interactions among Coronal Mass Ejections, such as these, specifically take place when they are sequentially initiated one after the other from the same active region.
Ejections of this kind can be delineated with the help of the concept of clusters that also produces an improved particle acceleration than the isolated plasma cloud. Overall, the finding of clusters has crucial implications in several other extreme geophysical events like major earthquakes and floods, and even in interdisciplinary fields such as telecommunications, hydrology, environmental studies, and finance.
Understanding the characteristics of extreme solar eruptions and extreme space weather events can help us better understand the dynamics and variability of the Sun as well as the physical mechanisms behind these events.
Dr Jenny Marcela Rodríguez Gómez, Study First Author and Research Scientist, Skoltech Space Center
The humankind is now at the start of a new 11-year solar activity cycle, which has been predicted to be not so powerful.
However, this does not mean that no extreme events can happen.
Astrid Veronig, Study Co-Author, Professor, and Director, Kanzelhöhe Observatory, University of Graz
In the past, extreme space weather events have taken place in the not-so-strong cycles or through the descending phase of a cycle. Enormous amounts of energy are released as numerous Coronal Mass Ejections and Solar Flares at the peak of the solar cycle. By contrast, in the descending phase of a cycle, the energy tends to accumulate and could be released in single but extremely strong events.
Therefore, our modern technological society needs take this seriously, study extreme space weather events, and also understand all the subtleties of the interactions between the Sun and the Earth. And whatever storms may rage, we wish everyone a good weather in space.
Tatiana Podladchikova, Research Co-Author and Assistant Professor, Skoltech Space Center
Rodríguez Gómez, J. M., et al. (2020) Clustering of Fast Coronal Mass Ejections during Solar Cycles 23 and 24 and the Implications for CME–CME Interactions. The Astrophysical Journal. doi.org/10.3847/1538-4357/ab9e72.