Friday, August 19, 2016

Solar Flares and Why We Care

What’s a Solar Flare?
By Anna Voelker

Solar flares are massive bursts of energy that are characterized by brightening observed on the Sun. They are the largest explosions in our solar system and can emit energy across the entire electromagnetic spectrum!

This is an image of a flare occurring on the Sun, as viewed by the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). SDO is a spacecraft that looks at the sun in a variety of wavelengths and temperatures to help scientists see and study different solar events. For example, this wavelength,131 angstroms, allows the brightening associated with flares to be extremely visible. Follow the link below to view a NASA video of this flare seen in multiple wavelengths:   

Solar flares are classified in units of X-ray flux, which describes the amount of energy each flare emits over a given area. A C-class flare has a flux value with a magnitude of 10e-6 W/m^2, M-class 10e-5 W/m^2, and X-class 10e-4 W/m^2. For comparison, the energy released by a flare can be 10 million times greater than the energy released in a volcanic explosion!
(See for more details.)

Above is a graph that allows us to measure flare intensity using data from the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) spacecraft. The vertical axis is X-ray flux and the horizontal axis is time (Universal Time or greenwich mean time, the time zone used as the official scientific time). Displayed in the top right-hand corner is the date, time, and X-ray flux value corresponding to wherever one moves their cursor along the graph. Shown here is the peak time and flux value of a flare that occurred on August 7. The maximum X-ray flux value of this flare was 1.37e-5 W/m^2, which we classify as an M1.3 flare.
This data can be accessed by going to and selecting “GOES Primary X-ray flux Timeline” under the eleventh tab in the magnetosphere section. 

Flares are very important to monitor and understand because they can cause radio blackouts and are associated with solar energetic particles (SEPs), which can damage spacecraft electronics and pose a threat to astronaut safety. Flares emit radiation that travels at the speed of light and SEPs travel at relativistic speeds of up to 80% the speed of light. This means that by the time we see a flare the radiation is already here and particles may be well on their way. This is why flare forecasting (trying to predict flares before they occur to provide advanced notice) is an important and ongoing scientific pursuit. 

Why BARREL Cares
By Alexa Halford

One of the very cool things about BARREL is that with only one primary science experiment we can see and study events not just in the Earth’s magnetosphere, but also on the Sun. When you have an explosive event such as a flare on the Sun, X-rays are produced. Some of these X-rays are scattered in all directions. As long as BARREL is in the line of sight, or in other words, in sunlight, we can capture the X-rays and study various aspects of the flare. Very few instruments have previously looked in the energy range that we look at, and thus we can add to the science knowledge of this part of the flare process.
We also care about documenting when BARREL is seeing X-rays associated with a solar flare so that we don’t mistakenly try to associate them with geomagnetic activity. One could say that the X-rays from the flare are a contamination of our data since we’re most interested in X-rays produced by radiation belt electrons in our atmosphere. I like to think of it not as contamination but a wonderful surprise. With this we get to study yet another field and do so much more research than we ever hoped for. Who would have thought (and probably lots of people did) that this small little set of balloons would be able to study not just the Earth’s radiation belt, not just solar energetic particles, but also help us understand the flare process often associated with the start of some of the larger space weather events! It’s just so cool! One instrument, relatively cheap balloons, and so much science! Who couldn’t love them!
Do you have any questions about flares? Want to learn more about what other space phenomenon flares can cause or what causes a flare in the first place? Feel free to ask your questions by commenting below! 

Special thanks to Dustin Mayfield-Jones!