Solar probe reveals sun’s tiny ‘campfires’ in closest-ever photos

By Joey Roulette

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A solar probe built by the European Space Agency and NASA has delivered the closest photos ever taken of the sun’s surface, revealing a landscape rife with thousands of tiny solar flares that scientists dubbed “campfires” and offering clues about the extreme heat of the outermost part of its atmosphere.

“When the first images came in, my first thought was, ‘This is not possible – it can’t be that good,'” David Berghmans, principal investigator for the Solar Orbiter spacecraft’s ultraviolet imager at the Royal Observatory of Belgium, told reporters on Thursday.

The spacecraft, launched from Florida in February, snapped the images in late May using the probe’s Extreme Ultraviolet Imager as it orbited nearly 48 million miles (77 million km) from the sun’s surface, or roughly halfway between the sun and Earth.

The “campfires” are believed to be tiny explosions, called nanoflares, and could explain why the sun’s outer shield, the corona, is 300 times hotter than the star’s surface. Scientists are awaiting more data from the spacecraft’s other instruments to know for sure.

“We’ve never been closer to the sun with a camera, and this is just the beginning of the long epic journey of Solar Orbiter,” said Daniel Müller, ESA’s Solar Orbiter project scientist.

Scientists typically have relied upon Earth-based telescopes for closeups of the sun’s surface. But Earth’s atmosphere limits the amount of visible light needed to glean views as intimate as those obtained by the Solar Orbiter.

The spacecraft also carries plasma-sampling instruments to offer researchers further data.

“That combination really allows us to make links and connections to what’s happening on the sun and what’s happening at the spacecraft,” said Holly Gilbert, Solar Orbiter project scientist at NASA.

Solar Orbiter’s primary mission of examining the sun’s polar regions will help researchers understand the origins of the solar wind, charged particles that blast through our solar system and affect satellites and electronics on Earth.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)

Solar eclipse plunges Chile into darkness

A person observes a solar eclipse at Coquimbo, Chile, July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of tourists scattered across the north Chilean desert on Tuesday to experience a rare, and irresistible combination for astronomy buffs: a total eclipse of the sun viewed from beneath the world’s clearest skies.

A solar eclipse is observed at Coquimbo, Chile, July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

A solar eclipse is observed at Coquimbo, Chile, July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, plunging the planet into darkness. It happens only rarely in any given spot across the globe.

The best views this time were from Chile’s sprawling Atacama desert north of the coastal city of La Serena, where a lack of humidity and city lights combine to create the world’s clearest skies.

The region had not seen an eclipse since 1592, according to the Chilean Astronomy Society. The next one is expected in 2165.

Eclipse-watchers in Chile were not disappointed on Tuesday. The 95-mile (150-kilometer) band of total darkness moved eastward across the open Pacific Ocean late in the afternoon, making landfall in Chile at 4:38 p.m. EDT (2038 GMT).

Clear skies dominated from the South American country’s northern border with Peru south to the capital of Santiago, where office workers poured from buildings to catch a glimpse of the phenomenon.

Earlier in the day, a run on special “eclipse-viewing” glasses downtown had led to a shortage in many stores, with street vendors charging as much as $10 for a pair of the disposable, cardboard-framed lenses.

“This is something rare that we may never see again,” said Marcos Sanchez, a 53-year-old pensioner from Santiago who had purchased 16 of the lenses from an informal vendor downtown for himself and his family.

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood and Fabian Cambero; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Millions of Americans await awe-inspiring total solar eclipse

By Steve Gorman and Irene Klotz

SALMON, Idaho/MURPHY, N.C. (Reuters) – Millions of Americans armed with protective glasses are taking positions along a slender ribbon of land cutting diagonally across the United States to marvel at the first total solar eclipse to unfold from coast to coast in nearly a century.

After weeks of anticipation, the sight of the moon’s shadow passing directly in front of the sun, blotting out all but the halo-like solar corona, will draw one of the largest audiences in human history, experts say.

When those watching via social and broadcast media are included, the spectacle will likely smash records.

Some 12 million people live in the 70-mile-wide (113-km-wide), 2,500-mile-long (4,000-km-long) zone where the total eclipse will appear on Monday. Millions of others have traveled to spots along the route to bask in its full glory.

Murphy, North Carolina, in the Smoky Mountains about two hours north of Atlanta, is among hundreds of small towns that are preparing for a huge influx of visitors.

“The weather forecast for Monday is beautiful, probably not a cloud in the sky all day,” said Dave Vanderlaan, 61, a retired landscaper. “We’re busy, but tomorrow anybody in Atlanta who says they want to see total, they’re going to come up to this area, so it could be crazy.”

Millions of Americans armed with protective glasses are taking positions along a slender ribbon of land cutting diagonally across the United States to marvel at the first total solar eclipse to unfold from coast to coast in nearly a century.. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Millions of Americans armed with protective glasses are taking positions along a slender ribbon of land cutting diagonally across the United States to marvel at the first total solar eclipse to unfold from coast to coast in nearly a century.. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

The phenomenon will first appear at 10:15 a.m. PDT (1715 GMT) near Depoe Bay, Oregon. Some 94 minutes later, at 2:49 p.m. EDT (1849 GMT), totality will take its final bow near Charleston, South Carolina.

The last time such a spectacle unfolded from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast was in 1918. The last total eclipse seen anywhere in the United States took place in 1979.

In Depoe Bay, a town of about 1,500 people, clear skies on Sunday raised hopes that the corona would be visible and not obscured by coastal haze or cloud.

Lisa Black, from Vancouver, Canada, said she and her party planned to have breakfast on the beach and be ready with their glasses.

“And, yeah, it will be cool to be able to look out at the ocean and just have the openness when it goes totally dark,” she said.

For millions of others who can’t get there, a partial eclipse of the sun will appear throughout North America if there is no local cloud cover.

Perhaps never before have so many people had the opportunity to see a total eclipse, said Michael Zeiler, a self-described “eclipse chaser” who on Monday will notch his ninth time seeing “totality.”

Weeks of publicity have fanned excitement, he said, and may have persuaded many families to make last-minute plans for a road trip to the zone.

Zeiler, who runs GreatAmericanEclipse.com, a website devoted to the event, estimates that up to 7.4 million people with travel to the zone to observe the total eclipse, which takes place in the peak vacation month of August.

Many people have trekked to remote national forests and parks of Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming, while others have bought tickets to watch the show en masse in a Carbondale, Illinois, football stadium, a two-hour drive southeast of St. Louis.

In South Carolina, Charleston County’s more than 16,000 hotel rooms are booked, tourism officials say. Police expect up to 100,000 visitors to the area on Monday.

Those who live along the path, which cuts through a few population centers like Kansas City and Nashville, Tennessee, can simply walk out their homes and look skyward.

For all but the couple of minutes of totality, observers must wear specially designed solar-safe sunglasses or filters to avoid severe eye damage. It is never safe to gaze directly at a partial eclipse with the naked eye.

Unlike many other astronomical events, such as comets and meteor showers, that often fail to live up to their hype, a total eclipse is nearly a sure thing, so long as the weather cooperates, experts say.

A predictive map issued on Sunday by Weather Decision Technologies Inc shows clear skies in the West, clouds in Nebraska and northwest Missouri, and partly cloudy conditions farther east.

The sun’s disappearing act is just part of the show. As the black orb of the moon gradually nibbles away at the sun’s face, the heavens dim to a quasi-twilight, and some stars and planets emerge.

Shadows on the ground seem to deepen, sunset-like colors streak the sky at the horizon, the air grows still, temperatures drop and birds cease to chirp as they settle in trees to roost.

The last glimmer of the sun gives way to a momentary sparkle known as the “diamond ring” effect just before the sun slips completely behind the moon, leaving only the aura of its outer atmosphere, or corona, visible in the darkness.

The corona, lasting just two minutes or so during Monday’s eclipse, marks the peak phase of totality and the only stage of the eclipse safe to view with the naked eye.

The overall display as seen at each point along the eclipse path, including the partial phases before and after totality, lasts nearly three hours.

 

(Additional reporting by Jane Ross in Depoe Bay; Writing by Steve Gorman, Frank McGurty and Ian Simpson; Editing by Sandra Maler)

 

Mercury poised for rare ‘transit’ across sun’s face on Monday

The planet Mercury is seen in silhouette lower left as it transits across the face of the sun

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – Stargazers will have a rare opportunity on Monday to witness Mercury fly directly across the face of the sun, a sight that unfolds once every 10 years or so, as Earth and its smaller neighboring planet come into perfect alignment.

The best vantage points to observe the celestial event, known to astronomers as a transit, are eastern North America, South America, Western Europe and Africa, assuming clouds are not obscuring the sun. In those regions, the entire transit will occur during daylight hours, according to Sky and Telescope magazine.

But Mercury is too small to see without high-powered binoculars or a telescope, and looking directly at the sun, even with sunglasses, could cause permanent eye damage.

Fortunately NASA and astronomy organizations are providing virtual ringside seats for the show by live-streaming images of the transit in its entirety and providing expert commentary.

The tiny planet, slightly larger than Earth’s moon, will start off as a small black dot on the edge of the sun at 7:12 a.m. Eastern (1112 GMT). Traveling 30 miles (48 km) a second, Mercury will take 7.5 hours to cross the face of the sun, which is about 864,300 miles (1.39 million km) in diameter, or about 109 times larger than Earth.

“Unlike sunspots, which have irregular shapes and grayish borders, Mercury’s silhouette will be black and precisely round,” Sky and Telescope said in a press release.

The event will come into view in the western United States after dawn, with the transit already in progress. The show will end at sunset in parts of Europe, Africa and most of Asia.

NASA Television, available on the Internet, will broadcast live video and images from the orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory and other telescopes. The show includes informal discussions with NASA scientists, who will answer questions submitted via Twitter using the hashtag #AskNASA.

Other options for armchair astronomers include:

– SkyandTelescope.com plans a live webcast with expert commentary, beginning at 7 a.m. EDT/1100 GMT.

– Slooh.com, which offers live telescope viewing via the Internet, will host a show on its website featuring images of Mercury taken by observatories around the globe.

– Europe’s Virtual Telescope, another robotic telescope network, will webcast the transit at www.virtualtelescope.eu

Scientists will take advantage of Mercury’s transit for a variety of science projects, including refining techniques to look for planets beyond the solar system.

“When a planet crosses in front of the sun, it causes the sun’s brightness to dim. Scientists can measure similar brightness dips from other stars to find planets orbiting them,” NASA said.

Mercury’s last transit was in 2006 and the planet will pass between the sun and Earth again in 2019. After that, the next opportunity to witness the event will not come until 2032.

(Editing by Frank McGurty and James Dalgleish)

“Coronal Hole” Found in Sun; Geomagnetic Storm Watch Issued for Later This Week

NASA has discovered a colossal dark hole – “the size of 50 earths” – on the sun’s surface, and it has been sending solar wind our way.

The Huffington Post reports that the new image of the sun, revealing the hole, was taken on October 10th by NASA’s orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory. The hole is located on the outmost layer of the sun, called the corona. Coronal holes have a lower density of solar material and weakened magnetic field lines, resulting in faster solar winds, of up to 500 miles per second, to escape.

When solar winds hit Earth, it disturbs our planet’s magnetosphere and causes geomagnetic storms. The geomagnetic storms create auroras in the sky like the Northern Lights, but they can also disrupt radio communications systems and satellites.

A geomagnetic storm watch has been issued for Wednesday through Friday, however, coronal holes can last up to months and more geomagnetic storms could be on the way.

Major Solar Storm Could Give Only 12 Hours’ Warning

A new report from British officials gives an ominous warning:  a solar storm that could damage the National Grid could arrive with no more than 12 hour’s warning.

The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) says the possibility of “severe space weather” could leave nations in the dark and disrupt communications and air traffic.

“Solar activity can produce x-rays, high-energy particles and coronal mass ejections of plasma. Where such activity is directed towards Earth there is the potential to cause wide-ranging impacts. These include power loss, aviation disruption, communication loss, and disturbance to (or loss of) satellite systems,” the study reads.

The study says the storm could be worse than the Carrington event of 1859 that is considered the strongest geomagnetic storm to strike the Earth.   Electric equipment worldwide was damaged by the storm and in some places, telegraph lines caught fire from the storm.

“Most coronal mass ejections are not emitted in the direction of Earth,” the report says. “Those that are typically take one to three days to reach us, and we can predict the arrival time to within about six hours. Predictions are currently less accurate due to degradation in the satellite capability available to forecasters.

“Generally speaking, the faster the ejection, the greater the potential impacts. The Carrington event, for example, travelled to Earth in as little as 18 hours. It is therefore likely that our reasonable worst case scenario would only allow us 12 hours from observation to impact.”

Solar Cycle 24 Weakest In More Than A Century

Scientists tracking the sun’s activity say the star has gone quiet and the solar maximum for Solar Cycle 24 has likely ended as one of the weakest in over a century.

The weaker than normal solar cycle means that “space weather” has been relatively benign with geomagnetic storms that were much less than feared in early predictions of the solar maximum.

Scientists are warning, however, that in the downturn of weak solar cycles there is a significant possibility of serious solar storms.  Strong solar flares are still possible as the sun begins to wind down over the next few years to the solar minimum.

History also shows that a weaker solar cycle means that temperatures on the Earth will be lower than average.

In the last two major periods of low solar activity, 1645 to 1715 and 1790 to 1830, the Earth recorded below-normal temperatures with the latter era being called a “Little Ice Age.”  The weaker solar winds can lead to more clouds that keep the Earth cooler by blocking more solar rays.

Some solar scientists say the next cycle, Cycle #25, could be weaker than this one.