Solar Physics: Why study it? What can it teach us about finding life beyond Earth?

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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