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Universe Today has investigated the importance of studying impact craters, planetary surfaces, exoplanets, and astrobiology, and what these disciplines can teach both researchers and the public about finding life beyond Earth. Here, we will discuss the fascinating field of solar physics (also called heliophysics), including why scientists study it, the benefits and challenges of studying it, what it can teach us about finding life beyond Earth, and how upcoming students can pursue studying solar physics. So, why is it so important to study solar physics?

Dr. Maria Kazachenko, who is a solar astrophysicist and assistant professor in the Astrophysical & Planetary Science Department at the University of Colorado, Boulder, tells Universe Today, “Solar physics studies how our Sun works, and our Sun is a star. Stars are building blocks of our Universe.  We are made of stardust. Stars provide energy for life. The Sun is our home star – it affects our life on Earth (space weather, digital safety, astronauts’ safety). Therefore, to be safe we need to understand our star. If we do not take our Sun into account, then sad things could happen. The Sun is the only star where we could obtain high-quality maps of magnetic fields, which define stellar activity. To summarize, studying the Sun is fundamental for our space safety and for understanding the Universe.”

The field of solar physics dates to 1300 BC Babylonia, where astronomers documented numerous solar eclipses, and Greek records show that Egyptians became very proficient at predicting solar eclipses. Additionally, ancient Chinese astronomers documented a total of 37 solar eclipses between 720 BC and 480 BC, along with keeping records for observing visible sunspots around 800 BC, as well. Sunspots were first observed by several international astronomers using telescopes in 1610, including Galileo Galilei, whose drawings have been kept to this day.

Presently, solar physics studies are conducted by both ground- and space-based telescopes and observatories, including the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope located in Hawai’i and NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, with the latter coming within 7.26 million kilometers (4.51 million miles) of the Sun’s surface in September 2023. But with all this history and scientific instruments, what are some of the benefits and challenges of studying solar physics?

Dr. Kazachenko tells Universe Today that some of the scientific benefits of studying solar physics include “lots of observations; lots of science problems to work on; benefits from cross-disciplinary research (stellar physics, exoplanets communities)” with some of the scientific challenges stemming from the need to use remote sensing, sometimes resulting in data misinterpretation. Regarding the professional aspects, Dr. Kazachenko tells Universe Today that some of the benefits include “small and friendly community, large variety of research problems relying on amazing new observations and complex simulations, ability to work on different types of problems (instrumentation, space weather operation, research)” with some of the professional challenges including finding permanent employment, which she notes is “like everywhere in science”.

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Image of the Sun obtained by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) on June 20, 2013, with a solar flare discharging on the left side. (Credit: NASA/SDO)

As noted, the study of solar physics involves investigating space weather, which is when the solar wind interacts with the Earth, specifically with our magnetic field, resulting in the beautiful auroras observed in the high northern and southern latitudes. On occasion, the solar wind is strong enough to wreak havoc on satellites and even knock out power grids across the Earth’s surface. This was demonstrated with the Carrington Event on September 1-2, 1859, when fires at telegraph stations were reported across the globe, along with several strong aurora observations, as well. While this event occurred with the Earth’s magnetic field largely deflecting the incoming solar wind, life on this planet could be doomed without our magnetic field protecting us. Therefore, what can solar physics teach us about finding life beyond Earth?

Dr. Kazachenko tells Universe Today, “The Sun can tell us about stellar activity, including flares and coronal mass ejections that might be crucial
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Juno Reveals a Giant Lava Lake on Io

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NASA’s Juno spacecraft came within 1,500 km (930 miles) of the surface of Jupiter’s moon Io in two recent flybys. That’s close enough to reveal new details on the surface of this moon, the most volcanic object in the Solar System. Not only did Juno capture volcanic activity, but scientists were also able to create a visual animation from the data that shows what Io’s 200-km-long lava lake Loki Patera would look like if you could get even closer. There are islands at the center of a magma lake rimmed with hot lava. The lake’s surface is smooth as glass, like obsidian.

“Io is simply littered with volcanoes, and we caught a few of them in action,” said Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton during a news conference at the European Geophysical Union General Assembly in Vienna, Austria. “There is amazing detail showing these crazy islands embedded in the middle of a potentially magma lake rimmed with hot lava. The specular reflection our instruments recorded of the lake suggests parts of Io’s surface are as smooth as glass, reminiscent of volcanically created obsidian glass on Earth.”

This animation is an artist’s concept of Loki Patera, a lava lake on Jupiter’s moon Io, made using data from the JunoCam imager aboard NASA’s Juno spacecraft. With multiple islands in its interior, Loki is a depression filled with magma and rimmed with molten lava. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

Just imagine if you could stand by the shores of this lake – which would be a stunning view in itself. But then, you could look up and see the giant Jupiter looming in the skies above you.

Juno made the two close flybys of Io in December 2023 and February 2024. Images from Juno’s JunoCam included the first close-up images of the moon’s northern latitudes. Undoubtedly, Io looks like a pizza – which has been the conclusion since our first views of this moon, when Voyager 1 flew through the Jupiter system in March 1979. The mottled and colorful surface comes from the volcanic activity, with hundreds of vents and calderas on the surface that create a variety of features. Volcanic plumes and lava flows across the surface show up in all sorts of colors, from red and yellow to orange and black. Some of the lava “rivers” stretch for hundreds of kilometers.

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Io’s sub-Jovian hemisphere is revealed in detail for the first time since Voyager 1 flew through the Jupiter system in March 1979, during the Juno spacecraft’s 58th perijove, or close pass, on February 3, 2024. This image shows Io’s nightside illuminated by sunlight reflected off Jupiter’s cloud tops. Several surface changes are visible include a reshaping of the compound flow field at Kanehekili (center left) and a new lava flow to the east of Kanehekili. This image has a pixel scale of 1.6 km/pixel. Credit : NASA/SwRI/JPL/MSSS/Jason Perry.

Juno scientists were also able to re-create a spectacular feature on Io, a spired mountain that has been nicknamed “The Steeple.” This feature is between 5 and 7 kilometers (3-4.3 miles) in height. It’s hard to comprehend the type of volcanic activity that could have created such a stunning landform.

Created using data collected by the JunoCam imager aboard NASA’s Juno during flybys in December 2023 and February 2024, this animation is an artist’s concept of a feature on the Jovian moon Io that the mission science team nicknamed “Steeple Mountain.” Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

Speaking of volcanic activity, two recent papers have come to a jaw-dropping conclusion about Io: this moon has been erupting since the dawn of the Solar System.

All the volcanic on Io is activity is driven by tidal heating. Io is in an orbital resonance with two other large moons of Jupiter, Europa and Ganymede.

“Every time Ganymede orbits Jupiter once, Europa orbits twice, and Io orbits four times,” explained the authors of a paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, led by Ery Hughes of GNS Science in New Zealand. “This situation causes tidal heating in Io (like how the Moon causes ocean tides on Earth), which causes the volcanism.”

However, scientists haven’t known how long this resonance has been occurring and whether what we observe today is what has always been happening in the Jupiter system. This is because volcanism renews Io’s surface almost

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Artemis Astronauts Will Deploy New Seismometers on the Moon

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Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Apollo astronauts set up a collection of lunar seismometers to detect possible Moon quakes. These instruments monitored lunar activity for eight years and gave planetary scientists an indirect glimpse into the Moon’s interior. Now, researchers are developing new methods for lunar quake detection techniques and technologies. If all goes well, the Artemis astronauts will deploy them when they return to the Moon.

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Fiber optic cable is the heart of a seismology network to be deployed on the Moon by future Artemis astronauts.

The new approach, called distributed acoustic sensing (DAS), is the brainchild of CalTech geophysics professor Zhongwen Zhan. It sends laser beams through a fiber optic cable buried just below the surface. Instruments at either end measure how the laser light changes during the shake-induced tremors. Basically Zhan’s plan turns the cable into a sequence of hundreds of individual seismometers. That gives precise information about the strength and timing of the tremors. Amazingly, a 100-kilometer fiber optic cable would function as the equivalent of 10,000 seismometers. This cuts down on the number of individual seismic instruments astronauts would have to deploy. It probably also affords some cost savings as well.

A seismometer station deployed on the Moon during the Apollo 15 mission. Courtesy NASA.
A seismometer station deployed on the Moon during the Apollo 15 mission. Courtesy NASA.

DAS and Apollo on the Moon

Compare DAS the Apollo mission seismometer data and it becomes obvious very quickly that DAS is a vast improvement. In the Apollo days, the small collection of instruments left behind on the Moon provided information that was “noisy”. Essentially, when the seismic waves traveled through different parts of the lunar structure, they got scattered. This was particularly true when they encountered the dusty surface layer. The “noise” basically muddied up the signals.

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The layout for the Apollo Lunar Seismic Profiling Experiment for the Apollo 17 mission. Courtesy Nunn, et al.

What DAS Does to Detect Quakes on the Moon

The DAS system stations laser emitters and data collectors at each end of a fiber optic cable. This allows for multiple widely spaced installations that measure light as it transits the network. The cable consists of glass strands, and each strand contains tiny imperfections. That sounds bad, but each imperfection provides a useful “waypoint” that reflects a little bit of the light back to the source. That information gets recorded as part of a larger data set. Setting up such a system of
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Ice Deposits on Ceres Might Only Be a Few Thousand Years Old

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The dwarf planet Ceres has some permanently dark craters that hold ice. Astronomers thought the ice was ancient when they were discovered, like in the moon’s permanently shadowed regions. But something was puzzling.

Why did some of these shadowed craters hold ice while others did not?

Ceres was first discovered in 1801 and was considered a planet. Later, it was thought to be the first asteroid ever discovered, since it’s in the main asteroid belt. Since then, our expanding knowledge has changed its definition: we now know it as a dwarf planet.

Even though it was discovered over 200 years ago, it’s only in the last couple of decades that we’ve gotten good looks at its surface features. NASA’s Dawn mission is responsible for most of our knowledge of Ceres’ surface, and it found what appeared to be ice in permanently shadowed regions (PSRs.)

New research shows that these PSRs are not actually permanent and that the ice they hold is not ancient. Instead, it’s only a few thousand years old.

The new research is titled “History of Ceres’s Cold Traps Based on Refined Shape Models,” published in The Planetary Science Journal. The lead author is Norbert Schorghofer, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute.

“The results suggest all of these ice deposits must have accumulated within the last 6,000 years or less.”

Norbert Schorghofer, senior scientist, Planetary Science Institute.

Dawn captured its first images of Ceres while approaching the dwarf planet in January 2015. At that time, it was close enough to capture images as good as Hubble’s. Those images showed craters and a high-albedo site on the surface. Once captured by Ceres, Dawn followed a polar orbit with decreasing altitude. It eventually reached 375 km (233 mi) above the surface, allowing it to see the poles and surface in greater detail.

“For Ceres, the story started in 2016, when the Dawn spacecraft, which orbited around Ceres at the time, glimpsed into these permanently dark craters and saw bright ice deposits in some of them,” Schorghofer said. “The discovery back in 2016 posed a riddle: Many craters in the polar regions of Ceres remain shadowed all year – which on Ceres lasts 4.6 Earth years – and therefore remain frigidly cold, but only a few of them harbor ice deposits.”

As scientists continued to study Ceres, they made another discovery: its massive Solar System neighbours make it wobble.

“Soon, another discovery provided a clue why: The rotation axis of Ceres oscillates back and forth every 24,000 years due to tides from the Sun and Jupiter. When the axis tilt is high and the seasons strong, only a few craters remain shadowed all year, and these are the craters that contain bright ice deposits,” said lead author Schorghofer.

This figure from the research shows how Ceres' obliquity has changed over the last 25,000 years. As the obliquity varies, sunlight reaches some crater floors that were thought to be PSRs. Image Credit: Schorghofer et al. 2023.
This figure from the research shows how Ceres’ obliquity has changed over the last 25,000 years. As the obliquity varies, sunlight reaches some crater floors that were thought to be PSRs. Image Credit: Schorghofer et al. 2023.

Researchers constructed digital elevation maps (DEMs) of the craters to uncover these facts. They wanted to find out how large and deep the shadows in the craters were, not just now but thousands of years ago. But that’s difficult to do since portions of these craters were in deep shadow when Dawn visited. That made it difficult to see how deep the craters were.

Robert Gaskell, also from the Planetary Science Institute, took on the task. He developed a new technique to create more accurate maps of the craters with data from Dawn’s sensitive Framing Cameras, contributed to the mission by Germany. With improved accuracy, these maps of the crater floors could be used in ray tracing to show sunlight penetrated the shadows as Ceres wobbled over thousands of years.

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