Astronomers Just Measured The Strongest Magnetic Field Ever Seen on The Sun


The active region was wider than Jupiter.

Four years ago, a monster sunspot complex broke a solar record. As astronomers have just figured out, it was the source of the strongest magnetic field ever measured on the surface of the Sun.

It was, researchers at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan concluded after five days of analysis, caused by gas outflow from one sunspot in the complex pushing against another sunspot.

The sunspot complex, AR1967 (the AR stands for “active region”), appeared in February 2014, during which time astronomers around the globe took measurements.

At over 180,000 kilometres (111,847 miles) across, it was wider than Jupiter, and went on to morph into AR1990 and spit out an enormous X4.9-class solar flare on February 25.

But the magnetic field occurred earlier in the month; the team’s data started from February 4.

Sunspots are called “active regions” for a reason. They look a bit like holes in the Sun, and are much darker and cooler than the rest of the visible surface, the layer of the Sun called the photosphere.

These regions are caused by magnetic fields, and usually occur in east-west pairs, with opposite polarities.

The magnetic fields are strongest in the darkest part of the sunspot, known as the umbra. Here, the magnetic field is around 1,000 times stronger than the surrounding photosphere and extends vertically.

In the lighter region, the penumbra, the magnetic field is weaker and extends horizontally.

Gas flows outward along the horizontal threads of the magnetic field in a sunspot’s penumbra.

Joten Okamoto and Takashi Sakurai of the NAOJ were analysing data taken of AR1967 by the Solar Optical Telescope aboard the HINODE spacecraft when they found something really unusual – a signature for strongly magnetised iron atoms.

typical sunspot vs monster sunspot

When they crunched the numbers, they found that the magnetic field had a strength of 6,250 gauss – more than twice the strength of the 3,000 gauss found in most other sunspots.

And it wasn’t in the umbra, either, but the bright region between two sunspots of the complex.

Because HINODE observed the sunspot for a period of time, the researchers were able to check the data over the next few days. The strong magnetic field stayed in the bright region between the two umbrae.

They concluded that the strong field belonged to the southern spot’s penumbra, the horizontal gas flows of which were compressing the northern spot’s horizontal magnetic fields.

The weird history of vitamin D — and what it actually has to do with sun


As you soak in rays of almost-summer sunshine, your thoughts may turn to vitamin D — because you probably know it has something to do with the sun. But do you actually know what it is?

Humans are kinda capable of photosynthesis, and they use it to produce what scientists believe to be the oldest hormone that has ever existed on earth. It’s vitamin D, and it’s been around 750 million years, ever since tiny phytoplankton began cranking out the stuff in what is now the Atlantic Ocean.

Scientists aren’t sure exactly why vitamin D developed, but one theory is that it functioned as a kind of early sunscreen. It also helped with another stumbling block on the evolutionary road out of the water and onto land: calcium. Going from the calcium-rich environment of the sea onto dry land presented certain difficulties, namely getting enough of it, and it just so happens that the production of vitamin D in the body changes the ability of calcium to get into each cell. This likely made more of the calcium already present in the body usable.

Much like the noble phytoplankton, when rays from the sun strike your body, you (along with amphibians, reptiles, all bird species and most mammals) “photosynthesize” vitamin D to allow the body to metabolize calcium. It isn’t actually the same process by which plants create food from sunlight, but it is literally a form of photosynthesis — the use of light to synthesize a chemical.

So necessary is this process to life on this planet that some have theorized the dinosaurs died out in part because — when the debris from an infamous asteroid blocked out the sun — the creatures couldn’t produce enough vitamin D to carry on.

After all, it was tiny, nocturnal rodents that survived the dinosaurs — and then the apocalypse — to give rise to the age of mammals, and such organisms would have already sorted out how to acquire enough vitamin D without abundant sunlight.

So what is vitamin D, anyway?

First, a word on vitamins: The story of vitamins begins with a bunch of scientists trying to understand what we now know as deficiency syndromes, like scurvy and beriberi. Their work differentiating these types of diseases from those of an infectious nature led to our modern understanding of vitamins as organic compounds (that’s organic as in carbon-containing, not as in “the more expensive bananas.”) Vitamins are compounds that an organism requires for survival and cannot make enough of itself.

Today, there are 13 vitamins (that we know of) that keep the ol’ human meat sack in running order — vitamins that must be consumed, because the body cannot make enough to meet meat sack demands. But vitamin D is a weird one: Your body can make just plenty, provided some sunshine and perhaps a bit of nudity.

We can make all the vitamin D we need by flashing bare skin at a carcinogenic ball of plasma nearly 93 million miles away, but we can also get some of it from our food. And if you’ve ever wondered how a blast of midday UVB rays to the epidermis can get your body to synthesize the same compounds food chemists are out there fortifying milk with, then today is your lucky day.

The modern understanding of vitamin D begins with a bunch of researchers torturing puppies in the name of science. Yes, really. Aren’t you glad you started down this sunny rabbit hole?

Rickets, a disease that causes bones to soften, became especially prevalent as the industrial revolution sent child workers indoors and factory pollution began to blot out the sun. When a rash of urban children developed skeletal deformities, researchers stepped up to find the cause and figure out a solution.

Enter the puppies.

In 1919, a scientist named Edward Mellanby successfully induced rickets in puppies by feeding them only bread and low-fat milk, noting that the resulting bone imaging and physical appearance of the dogs mimicked that of children suffering from rickets. Supplementing the diets of the wee puppers with yeast and orange juice (for B vitamins and scurvy-prevention, respectively) did nothing to stave off the bone disease; however, supplementation with both butterfat and cod liver oil did the trick. And with that, rickets was officially outed as a disease of deficiency. And where there’s a deficiency, so, too, must there be a vitamin to be deficient in.

Today we know that rickets can be caused by a lack of or malfunction in the metabolism of phosphorus or calcium, and that the syndrome primarily results from vitamin D deficiency. During the early 20th century, it was discovered that certain foods — such as cod liver oil and whole milk — could heal rickets, but then research threw science a little curveball: It seemed as if going outside could also cure the disease.

In a most plant-like fashion, the bodies of these factory-working tykes could use sunlight to make an essential vitamin.

The term vitamin D refers to a group of fat-soluble steroids with a special “broken ring” formation. The shape of the compound is notable because it helps the body absorb critical nutrients such as calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc through the gut wall. This is all well and good, and explains in part why we add vitamin D to calcium-rich milk, but what does any of this have to do with sunlight?

As mentioned, there are two avenues to acquiring vitamin D: food and sun. And while yes, fatty fish flesh is a decent source of vitamin D compared to other foods — few of which naturally contain the compound — the bulk of vitamin D is produced in the skin thanks to a process known as photosynthesis, photodissociation, photolysis and — my personal favorite — photodecomposition.

Here’s how it works:

Human skin contains a compound that functions as a precursor to vitamin D, called 7-dehydrocholesterol; the compound is also a precursor to cholesterol. (Cholesterol gets a bad rap for giving bankers heart attacks, but is, in fact, completely necessary for the production of steroid hormones like androgens and estrogens, among other things.) When light from our neighborhood star lands on the skin, a specific portion of the light is able to transform 7-dehydrocholesterol into vitamin D3 by breaking a bond in the precursor molecule. The light that can do this is ultraviolet, meaning the length of the waves in which it travels are too short for the human eye to see. Specifically, it’s the UVBportion of the spectrum, which moves at a faster wavelength than its slower cousin, UVA rays. Simply put, sunlight breaks a bond in a molecule in your skin and then your body uses the new, sun-altered compound to manage its calcium needs.

And that’s how your body uses the photons streaming out of a 6-billion-year-old star to make its own vitamin D.

It doesn’t take much time to make enough vitamin D, if you time your light exposure correctly and you live in the right place. For a pale person – they make vitamin D the fastest — about 10 minutes in the midday summer sun with their arms and legs exposed is enough to make 50 times the vitamin D you need in a day. (But don’t worry, it’s impossible to O.D. on vitamin D in the sun.)

However, even though it’s astronomically easy for most people meet their vitamin D needs on a nice, June day, vitamin D deficiency is rampant in modern life. This is a significant problem, as those with the lowest levels of the vitamin may have more than twice the risk of death from heart disease, compared to those with the highest levels. And while it doesn’t take much summer light to make lots of the vitamin, those north of Atlanta are virtually doomed to not synthesize enough of the vitamin during the wintertime. This is because the angle of the light hitting the earth makes it so UVB rays cannot penetrate the atmosphere; this can be mitigated with supplementation, but has always struck me as curious, given that people have been living in darker, colder areas for millennia without the synthetic bolstering of vitamin D levels.

Then I remember that cultures in the darkest, coldest parts of the world often eat a lot of fatty fish — a great source of vitamin D.

Researchers estimate that many Americans are vitamin D-deficient, which can lead to heart trouble, cognitive impairments in older adults, severe asthma in children, increased risk of cancer, and, of course, rickets. One 2010 study found 41 percent of Americans to be vitamin D deficient, a staggering number with wide-reaching implications for an already-burdened health-care system.

All the more reason to get outside while the getting is good to make like a plant and photosynthesize.

The Sun is slowing down, and scientists think they finally know why.


Nothing lasts forever.

Astronomers think they might have finally solved the mystery of how and why the Sun’s rotation is slowing down.

The Sun, on average, rotates on its axis roughly once per month, but two decades ago, scientists made the baffling discovery that its outer 5 percent spins more slowly than the rest of its interior. And a new study might have finally figured out why.

“The Sun won’t stop spinning anytime soon, but we’ve discovered that the same solar radiation that heats the Earth is ‘braking’ the Sun, because of Einstein’s Special Relativity, causing it to gradually slow down, starting from its surface,” writes lead researcher Jeff Kuhn from the Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii.

The Sun doesn’t spin as a solid mass like Earth does – instead, its parts rotate at different rates depending on their latitude and how far they are from the centre of the Sun. So the poles will spin at a different rate to the equator.

That’s something we’ve known for a long time, but what scientists couldn’t figure out was why the outer 5 percent of the Sun was rotating slower compared to its interior.

To figure out what was going on, the team looked at 3.5 years of data from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite, which has been observing the Sun since 2010.

Their data was taken from the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager, which looks at solar oscillations in the Sun’s magnetic field.

They noticed that there had been a sharp slow-down in the Sun’s rotation rate in its very outer 150 km layer, which they predict is due to something called the photon-braking effect.

The team predicts that this braking effect is similar to something called the Poynting-Robertson effect, which is a process by which solar radiation causes a dust grain orbiting a star to lose angular momentum and slow down.

They suggest that same effect also acts like a brake on the rotation of the outer area of the Sun, and might also be in play around other stars in the Universe.

“This is a gentle torque that is slowing it down, but over the Sun’s 5 billion year lifetime it has had a very noticeable influence on its outer 35,000 km,” said Kuhn.

The big question now is how this slowing rotation at the Sun’s surface affects the solar magnetic field, which is what controls the solar flares that blast off the Sun and can affect Earth’s telecommunications.

That’s something the researchers hope to work on in future, but at least we now finally have a good idea about why the Sun’s spin is slowing down.

This NASA probe will reach record speeds and withstand blistering temperatures as it gets dangerously close to the Sun


BI Graphics_Solar probe plus space conditions

Blazing hot temperatures. Sizzling space dust and subatomic particles flowing at supersonic speeds. Solar storms ejecting billions of tons of material as fast as 1,240 miles per second.

These are just a few of the insane conditions NASA’s Solar Probe Plus spacecraft will face as it plunges into the sun’s corona, or outer atmosphere, moving as fast as 450,000 miles per hour – venturing where no manmade object has been before, moving multitudes faster than any manmade object has ever gone.

The Solar Probe Plus will brave the sun’s insanity to take the first in situ, or in place, measurements of the conditions inside the corona to find out what makes it so hot – 200 times hotter than the surface of the sun. It will also investigate how solar winds (streams of charged and energetic particles flowing from the sun) are accelerated.

Here’s a breakdown of the intense environment Solar Probe Plus will have to endure on its journey to understand the sun.

Don’t panic, but a massive black hole has appeared on the sun


It looks like a Hollywood special effect showing the violent death of our solar system – a huge black mark, creeping across the surface of the sun.

But although it looks like the sun is either about to fizzle out, or explode, there’s nothing to worry about, the scientists promise.

While the coronal hole looks terrifying in this ultraviolet image taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, it won’t harm us.

NASA says, ‘Coronal holes are low-density regions of the sun’s atmosphere, known as the corona. Because they contain little solar material, they have lower temperatures and thus appear much darker than their surroundings.

There's a fucking massive black hole on the sun

‘Coronal holes are visible in certain types of extreme ultraviolet light, which is typically invisible to our eyes, but is colorized here in purple for easy viewing.

‘Coronal holes are the source of a high-speed wind of solar particles that streams off the sun some three times faster than the slower wind elsewhere.’

Here’s why the Sun makes some people sneeze, according to science


Yes, it’s a thing.

While certainly not as dramatic as bursting into flames, for some people, sudden exposure to sunlight produces an unexpected reflex – they sneeze. Chances are this happens to you, or one of your friends. It’s called the ‘photic sneeze reflex’ and is more common than you’d expect, occurring in 17 to 35 percent of the world’s population, according to informal surveys. But what causes it?

Sneezing can’t really be controlled – it’s one of the body’s reflexes, and is typically associated with irritation in the nose. From here the signal is sent via neural pathways to the brain, resulting in a powerful release of air through your mouth and nose, which not only helps expel mucous or irritants from the nasal passages as fast as possible, but also contracts a bunch of muscles in the body, including the eyelids and the trachea.

When it comes to sun sneezing, even Greek philosopher Aristotle famously noticed the phenomenon and mentioned it in the ‘Nose’ chapter of his Book of Problems: “Why does the heat of the Sun provoke sneezing, and not the heat of the fire?”

However, the photic sneeze reflex has nothing to do with heat, and instead appears to be the result of crossed wires somewhere along the trigeminal nerve. Also known as the fifth cranial nerve, it’s the largest and most complex paired nerve in the head, with three major branches leading to the eyes, nasal cavity, and the jaw. It’s a crowded place in terms of nervous signalling, so it’s not surprising that the trigeminal nerve would occasionally get the reflexes wrong. Bright light causes your pupils to contract, so that signal might be mistakenly sent to the nose as well.

Another nervous system-related hypothesis states that these Sun-related sneezes might occur thanks to ‘parasympathetic generalisation’: a process that occurs when one part of the parasympathetic nervous system – such as the pupil of the eye – is excited by a stimulus and happens to activate other parts of the system as well – such as the membranes in the nose.

Whichever nervous system misfire is the exact cause of the problem, researchers have figured out the underlying genetics of sun-sneezing. “[T]he reflex is now also known by the hilariously apt acronym Achoo, which stands for Autosomal Dominant Compelling Helio-opthalmic Outburst,” writes Jason Goldman at BBC. “‘Autosomal’ because the affiliated gene is located on one of the non-sex-linked chromosomes, and ‘dominant’ because you only need to inherit it from one of your parents to express the trait.”

Even though commonly associated with the Sun, photic sneeze reflex can also happen thanks to any other sudden light exposure, such as a flashlight in a dark room. And because it’s a harmless condition, you can go on and try this on your sneeze-afflicted friend – just don’t tell them it was our idea.

Sun has ‘flipped upside down’ .


The sun has fully “flipped upside down”, with its north and south poles reversed to reach the midpoint of Solar Cycle 24, Nasa has said.

Now, the magnetic fields have once again started moving in opposite directions to begin the completion of the 22 year long process which will culminate in the poles switching once again.

The Sun. Photo / Getty Images

“A reversal of the sun’s magnetic field is, literally, a big event,” said Nasa’s Dr. Tony Phillips.

“The domain of the sun’s magnetic influence (also known as the ‘heliosphere’) extends billions of kilometers beyond Pluto. Changes to the field’s polarity ripple all the way out to the Voyager probes, on the doorstep of interstellar space.”

To mark the event, Nasa has released a visualisation of the entire process.

At the beginning, in 1997, the video shows the sun with its positive polarity on the top (the green lines), and the negative polarity on the bottom (the purple lines).

Over the next 11 years, each set of lines gradually move toward the opposite pole, eventually showing a complete flip.

By the end, both set of lines representing the opposing magnetic fields begin to work their way back, which will eventually culminate in the completion of the full 22 year magnetic solar cycle in approximately 11 years, before the whole process starts over again.

“At the height of each magnetic flip, the sun goes through periods of more solar activity, during which there are more sunspots, and more eruptive events such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections,” said Nasa’s Karen C. Fox.

“Cosmic rays are also affected,” added Dr. Phillips. “These are high-energy particles accelerated to nearly light speed by supernova explosions and other violent events in the galaxy.”

Source:NASA

Comet ISON dies as it rounds the Sun.


Our star apparently destroyed this surprisingly fragile celestial visitor during their close encounter.
Time-lapse image of Comet ISON from SOHO
Comet ISON comes in from the bottom right and moves out toward the upper right, getting fainter and fainter, in this time-lapse image from the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. The image of the sun at the center is from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.
ESA/NASA/SOHO/SDO/GSFC
Comet ISON (4.5 billion B.C. – A.D. 2013) survived for more than 4.5 billion years in the frigid depths of the solar system, but it fizzled during its brief moment in the Sun on November 28. Through a combination of ISON’s delicate makeup, the Sun’s intense heat, and — most importantly — our star’s powerful tidal forces, the comet’s nucleus failed to survive its brush within 730,000 miles (1.16 million kilometers) of the Sun’s surface.As the comet approached perihelion (its least distance from the Sun) November 28, it continued to brighten at roughly the rate astronomers had predicted. Late on the evening of the 27th (in North America), ISON peaked at magnitude –2.0. Images from coronagraphs aboard both the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) showed the comet as a bright point of light trailed by one distinct dust tail and a narrow dust streamer.

But ISON started to fade even before its closest approach to the Sun. The Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), which is equipped with the best cameras for close-up observations of our star and its surroundings, failed to see the comet at perihelion. And once ISON had moved far enough beyond the Sun that it could reappear in SOHO’s coronagraphs, it was nowhere to be found.

As astronomers began to write their post-mortems, however, the unpredictable comet rose from the dead like the legendary Phoenix. Some 24 hours after perihelion, SOHO once again captured images of ISON showing a thin dusty tail and a diffuse central condensation that some interpreted as a small remnant of the comet’s nucleus. But the revival soon began to peter out — by late on November 29, the glow had faded to around 6th magnitude.

It appears that the show amateur astronomers were hoping ISON would produce once it emerged from the Sun’s glare in early December won’t take place. Most scientists think the nucleus has dissipated, and any remaining dust likely will be too faint to see through anything but large telescopes. Even though ISON’s saga seems over, astronomers will spend months poring over their observations of this one-of-a-kind visitor.

 

ISON’s Ghost: ‘Comet of the Century’ is Now Ex-Comet


Sad news, comet fans: ISON is no more. It’s a vaporized husk of its former self. A sublimated dirty snowball. Comet ISON is an ex-comet and this time it’s not playing.

This sad turn of events is brought to you by the joint NASA/ESA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SoHO)’s LASCO instrument that gives a wide-angle view of the sun’s atmosphere (pictured above). For the duration of Comet ISON’s close approach to our nearest star, LASCO has been carefully tracking the comet’s progress. After many heart-stopping hours post-perihelion on Nov. 28, space experts nearly gave up hope — ISON had vanished from LASCO’s view, apparently not surviving the sun’s extreme tidal forces and powerful radiation.

But then, just as the U.S. was recovering from Thanksgiving turkey and wine, ISON re-energized; a component of its roasted nucleus had survived the turmoil and was brightening.

Unfortunately, the brightening was short-lived. Despite a couple of days of hope, Comet ISON’s nucleus has all but disappeared, leaving a ghostly wisp of dust behind.

The “Comet of the Century” is now, officially, the Turkey of the Century.

“Among experts, a consensus is building that the comet broke apart shortly before perihelion (closest approach to the sun),” writes Tony Phillips, NASA astronomer and curator of Spaceweather.com.

Like the countless sungrazing comets that have come before it, ISON succumbed to the close solar pass. Although hopes were high that the comet would survive the plunge, no one really knew what ISON was going to do. As a “virgin” comet from the Oort Cloud (a hypothetical cloud of cometary objects approximately one light-year from the sun), this was ISON’s first visit to the inner solar system. With little information on the comet’s composition, cometary fragmentation was always a possibility.

All that remains of Comet ISON seems to be a fan-shaped debris field of small fragments of the once-mighty cometary nucleus, each shard frantically venting the remaining ices into space. Any hope of seeing a dazzling naked-eye comet just in time for Christmas is vaporizing faster than the sublimating ISON fragments that now litter interplanetary space.

5 Important Questions to Help You Figure out What You Really Want.


“The time will pass anyway, you can either spend it creating the life you want or spend it living the life you don’t want. The choice is yours.” ~ Unknown

I used to be the queen of indecisiveness. I blamed it on my Virgo sun sign. But, really, my inability to make decisions came from believing I didn’t really know what I wanted. Eventually though, I realized most of it boiled down to fear and I came up with these 5 important questions to help make every situation, and what I wanted in it, crystal clear.

These questions work for just about every type of decision we have to make, so start askin’ away and you might just be surprised to find out what you really want.

5 Questions to Ask Yourself When You’re Stuck

1. If no one else had any opinion about this, how would I feel?

It’s so easy to let what other people think cloud our own clarity. We often value other’s opinions over our own; and sometimes prefer to listen to others so we’re “off the hook” if it doesn’t work out perfectly. By filtering out other people’s opinions (or even smarter, not asking them in the first place), the voice that speaks to us most loudly about what we should do, will always be our own.

2. Is the fear of failure, or of success, standing in my way?

If failures were obsolete, we’d all be more aligned with our hearts. The fear of failure and humiliation are very real and very present during decision-making. Equally as important to pay attention to though, is the fear of success. When we succeed, our lives can change drastically too and sometimes, that’s just as scary. Gently looking at our fears is a great way to determine if our indecisiveness is because we’re scared to excel, or scared to fail.

3. If nobody’s feelings could get hurt, what would I do?

I have always had a major heavy heart about hurting other people’s feelings. This, I know, has steered me far from choosing what’s best for me, many times. Asking this question can be one of the most powerful. When we remove our fear of hurting others from the equation, we can usually quickly see what we truly want for ourselves.

4. If I wasn’t trying to be “practical,” what would I decide?

Feeling like we need to be “practical” and “reasonable” is often a limiting belief. Of course we do need to worry about some realities of life; but most times our limits are just created by rules we’ve been playing by our whole lives. And we never stop to think it might be good to change them. It’s ok to stretch our desires into the “fun” and “exciting” instead of the practical, extend beyond the safe boundaries of where we’ve been living, and know we can dream bigger for ourselves than we’ve been allowing ourselves to.

5. Will I survive even if it doesn’t work out?

Decisions are tough, but even when we believe we made the “wrong” one, we usually survive them anyway. One of the best ways to eliminate fear about figuring out and going after what we really want, is reminding ourselves that we’ll survive, even if things don’t turn our perfectly. Perspective is everything.

Now that you know what you really want, are you brave enough to choose it?