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Solar wind streams bring NASA space scientists to the Lakes

09/17/2009 11:51:52

Scientists at the conference in Ambleside
Scientists at the conference in Ambleside

Scientists from Lancaster University have joined experts from NASA and other international institutions at a workshop on solar wind streams.

One hundred and fifty years after English astronomer Richard Carrington observed the largest solar flare ever recorded, the international team of scientists gathered in the Lake District to discuss the impact of high speed solar wind on the Earth’s space environment.

The High-Speed Solar-Wind Streams and Geospace Interactions Workshop, held in Ambleside over five days, was convened by Dr Mick Denton of the Space Plasma Environment and Radio Science Group from Lancaster University’s Department of Communication Systems at InfoLab21.

It was attended by scientists from several organisations including the British Antarctic Survey, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA and the NASA Langley Research Center.

Dr. Marty Mlynczak, Senior Research Scientist at the NASA Langley Research Center, said the workshop was unique.

“It brings together a small but scientifically diverse group of experts to discuss current questions regarding the interaction of the solar wind with the Earth’s space environment and atmosphere. It fosters collaborations amongst scientists whom, without the workshop, might never have worked together.”

The solar eruption observed by Richard Carrington on 1st September 1859 was massive enough to be observed visually, but was only one step in a sequence of events that would have a huge impact upon the Earth.

Observers as far south as Florida and the Canary Islands were treated to brilliant displays of the aurora borealis while the global network of telegraph lines - the Victorian equivalent of the internet - was disrupted for many hours.

Space scientists now understand that the flow of electrically charged material from the Sun known as the “solar wind” carries a powerful magnetic field out into the solar system. Extreme events, such as the 1859 “Carrington Event”, result from the strong interaction between the solar wind with Earth’s own magnetic field.

Dr. Denton said: “Dynamics on the Sun cause the solar wind to flow past the Earth at over 500 kilometres per second, or about a million miles per hour, for many days a time. These high speed streams are particularly effective at driving geomagnetic storms”.

Geomagnetic storms generate dramatic aurorae, but can also have less desirable consequences lasting several days. The impact of the Carrington event demonstrated that human technology was vulnerable to the impact of “space weather”, even 150 years ago.

“Modern society’s dependence on space technology means that it’s more important than ever to understand the physics that underpins space weather” explained Dr. Denton.

Participants at the workshop heard new evidence that high-speed solar-wind streams affect many regions of near-Earth space, from the solar wind, to the aurora borealis, and even aspects of the upper-atmosphere that may link solar activity to changes in the Earth's climate.

Dr. Joe Borovsky from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US explained some of the research discussed during the week. “The meeting provided a great focus for our science. We've made progress on understanding connections between hot plasma in the solar wind and its impact on the Earth and its atmosphere - in effect by using the inner solar system as a vast plasma laboratory. It has also been great to work in such a wonderful location.”