May 23, 2024 - Science

New Sun research could lead to better solar storm predictions

A yellow solar flare on the left side of the orange sun.

A solar flare on the left side of the Sun. Photo: NASA/Goddard/SDO

The Sun's dynamo magnetic field starts some 20,000 miles below its surface and not 130,000 miles below its surface as previous research suggested, a new study has found.

Why it matters: The findings could help scientists more accurately forecast powerful solar storms that can trigger auroras, like the ones seen across Northern and Southern Hemisphere skies this month, and which have the potential to cause communications disruptions, and damage electricity grids and Earth-orbiting satellites.

  Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) illuminate the sky of San Francisco North Bay, California.
Northern Lights (aurora borealis) illuminate the sky of San Francisco North Bay as seen from San Rafael, California, U.S., on May 11, 2024. Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu via Getty Images

Context: Dark areas on the face of the Sun, known as sunspots, can emit solar flares that sometimes come with coronal mass ejections (CMEs), electrically charged plasma, which can during extreme solar storms disrupt technology and supercharge auroras, as happened this month.

What they did: Researchers made the discovery in the study, published in the journal Nature on Thursday, after developing numerical simulations to model the Sun's magnetic field and ran complex calculations through a NASA supercomputer.

What they're saying: "Understanding the origin of the sun's magnetic field has been an open question since Galileo and is important for predicting future solar activity, like flares that could hit the Earth," said Northwestern University's Daniel Lecoanet, a co-author, in a statement Wednesday, in reference to astronomer Galileo Galilei, who researched sunspots some 400 years ago.

Yes, but: Further research is needed to confirm their findings and University of Wisconsin-Madison's Ellen Zweibel, who was not involved in the study, wrote in an accompanying editorial that the modeling was "highly simplified," but "sure to inspire future studies."

Zoom out: The Sun is near the peak of its current 11-year cycle and this unleashed the largest flare of Cycle 25, and scientists expect more frequent activity.

  • The recent solar storms knocked out the navigational systems of farming equipment during peak planting season.

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