What are Solar Flares and What Do They Do to the Earth?

Solar Flares
In this image, you can see an active region on the sun with dark sunspots. Image credit: NASA/SDO/AIA/HMI/Goddard Space Flight Center

Watch out but Don’t look up! A solar flare is coming… Well almost. Solar flares are giant explosions that shoot out from the circumference of the sun, emitting radiation that is beyond human imagination. These emissions of light, heat, and energy can actually spread through the 93,000,000 miles distance from the Sun to the Earth’s atmosphere. But don’t worry. They never make it past that; however, if the flare intensity becomes too strong, there can be disturbances of radio frequency transmissions here on Earth.

Generally speaking, we humans are safe on the ground, at least for now, but in a few billion years, that may not be the case, when the Sun starts turning into a red giant and then a white dwarf.

Solar Flares on the Sun
An image of active regions on the Sun from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. The glowing hot gas traces out the twists and loops of the Sun’s magnetic field lines. Image credit: NASA/SDO/AIA

 

The Energy of Solar Flares

The amount of energy released is mind-boggling. Up to 1032 ergs. That is the number 1 followed by 32 zeros.  Equivalent to billions of hydrogen bombs simultaneously exploding; however, the flares emit only about 10% of the overall energy of the Sun at any one time. Another way of putting it is that these energy particles can be over a million times greater than the energy that a volcanic eruption can put out.

How Do Solar Flares Develop?

We all know what magnetic fields are and they exist in the sun also, but sometimes these fields get tangled up, like when the wires behind your computer get mixed together. Only on the sun, energy is dispersed when the entanglement gets to be just too much and a burst of fire erupts in order to dissolve this entanglement.

Solar flares can be broken down into three segments.

      • Precursor stage. This is where it begins. Huge amounts of magnetic energy are generated.
      • Impulsive stage. The acceleration of protons and electrons into gigantic energy distributions.
      • Decay stage. The release of the energy, then the flares’ began their decomposition, which can last from about three seconds to 60 seconds.

      These rapid bursts of energy reside on the sun’s outer layer, called the corona and they occur roughly every eleven years. They are difficult to see in a telescope, (of course sun filters are necessary), but with the proper instruments, they can be easily recorded.

Conclusion

Solar flares are one of the natural phenomena that occur in outer space, specifically among stars and our sun is no exception. We need not fear though as these energy bursts do not affect us here on earth with the possible exception of radio transmissions being interrupted. But as the sun matures, it will change to a red giant and then a white dwarf, but that won’t happen for another five billion years or so, so if you are planning a vacation or going to a game, feel free. You’ll be fine. 

 

The Power of the Sun!

Photo of the Sun by NASA
Photo by NASA on Unsplash

How Powerful is the Sun?

Ah, the Sun. We stay warm under it, tan in it and it gives life to every living thing on this planet. But it is 93,000,000 miles away. It is so far that if you were flying there at 550 MPH, it would take you 17 years to get there. If the Space Shuttle, traveling at 27,000 MPH would go there, it would reach the sun in about 156 days.

When you look at the sun, you are actually seeing the way it looked about nine minutes ago. In the photo above, we see a large solar flare extending out from the Sun’s surface, but if you looked at the sun right now, you wouldn’t see the flare. You would have to wait another nine minutes before it would appear.

A more dramatic scenario is that if the Sun blew up right now, we wouldn’t know about it until about nine minutes later. Actually, the sun won’t leave us for another four or five billion years, so you have a little time to prepare.

These examples boil down to the fact that it takes the light from the Sun that long to reach us, but even at that distance, don’t let your curiosity get to you by starring at the sun, or you will go blind.

The fact that an object is 93 million miles away and can still cause this kind of permanent damage to us gives you a good idea of how powerful the gas giant is.

How Big is the Sun When Compared to Other Stars?

For a comparison of the size of our Sun relative to other stars in our galaxy, take a look at this video and get ready for a mind-boggle!

Brief Overview of the Sun’s Lifecycle

In about five billion years, the star will have lost all its hydrogen fuel, which is the element that allows the fusion process to proceed. The result is that it will turn into what astronomers call a red giant.

When a star starts turning into a red giant, it begins to expand to an enormous size. So big that its size could engulf virtually all the inner planets in its solar system. For our solar system, that includes Mercury, Venus, and you got it – Earth. 

As mentioned, we won’t see the Sun’s demise for another 4.5 billion years, so when it begins its red giant cycle, you might want to pack some beers and enjoy watching the Sun blow up while sitting on a beach and having your beer before you say goodbye! 

Energy

The energy of this sun is mind-boggling. It produces energy that is the equivalent of one-trillion megaton bombs per second. Yes, you heard right. That’s 67,000 times as powerful as the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima and this occurs every second! 

So what is it about this medium-sized star that can be the difference between life and death on Earth? Why is it so powerful? What is it made of? 

Let’s Start with Fusion

Fusion is the process of atoms merging into another atom. In the case of our Sun (and most other stars) four hydrogen atoms fuse into one helium atom, which is the result of gravity that causes these atoms to merge together.  

Not all the mass of the four hydrogen atoms is converted into one helium atom, as the total amount of the mass of the four hydrogen atoms does not equal the total mass of the assimilated helium atom, so something must give. And what gives is energy. A lot of it. About four million times more energy than the burning of coal. 

More precisely, only 71% of the total mass of the four atoms is fused with the hydrogen atom. This is the foundation of Einstein’s formula E=MC2. The more mass that is released, the more energy that is created. So for fusion reactions to occur, Briticana.com sums it up pretty clearly: The total mass of the resultant particles is less than the mass of the initial reactants”. Basically, it is saying that mass and energy are different forms of the same thing, so if the mass of an object gives, the result is energy. 

As we mentioned, these fusion reactions occur every second. No wonder we can go blind if we look at the Sun. 

More about how this entire fusion process works can be found here.

The Sun’s Structure

Illustration of he Sun's components
Wikipedia Creative Commons

Imagine a ball of gas that is 865,370 miles in diameter. That’s our Sun. There are no solid materials in this star (or in any star in the universe). Just hot gasses, very hot. 9,900 degrees Fahrenheit hot! 

With that said, the Sun is divided into four layers: the photosphere, chromosphere, corona, and heliosphere. Let’s take a look.

    • Core – The core is where the fusion process occurs. As the hydrogen atoms merge into the helium atoms, energy in the form of light is generated.
    • Radiative Zone – This zone radiates (transfers light and heat).
    • Tachocline – The atoms are radiated through this thin boundary region and then move to the convective zones.
    • Convective Zone – Convection is the process by which less dense material rises. This part of the Sun is much cooler than its inner layers, but the result of this process is where we see the light and feel the heat of the Sun.

There are much brighter stars than the Sun. Some are called “supergiants” or “hypergiants.” These giants can be over 100 times more luminous than our own ball of gas! Now, just imagine how powerful their fusion reactions are! 

Types of Stars

There are many different types of stars in our galaxy. The types of stars are classified by the following criteria:

    • Temperature – Hot stars are blue or white, while cooler stars are orange or red
    • Mass – Massive stars burn out quickly, while less massive ones can last millions of years
    • Spectral Type – Stars can be identified through their colors and temperatures

Conclusion

The Sun is nothing but a huge hot ball of gas, but show some respect for it, because this great gas ball is what keeps us alive. Amazingly, it supplies life to this planet even though it is 93,000,000 miles away.

The center of the Sun is the core, where the temperatures are millions of degrees. The core’s pressure from gravity causes hydrogen to fuse together to form helium, which is the fusion process. 

The Sun doesn’t have an electrical charge, so it doesn’t produce light on its own. The heat of the core makes the gas around it become extremely hot, and this is what makes it glow.

Our Sun is a type of star called a yellow dwarf. There are many different types of stars that are of different sizes and temperatures. 

So there are many different stars in the universe and our Sun is one of them. They are all so powerful that staring at them for more than a second can make you blind. So accept the fact that this star is powerful, but don’t look up to find out!

Phobos and Deimos – An Introduction to the Properties of Mar’s Moons

Planet Mars
Planet Mars. 4h Planet from the Sun. Mars is a terrestrial planet with a thin atmosphere, having craters, volcanoes, valleys, deserts. Elements of this image furnished by NASA

A Brief Explanation of Mars

Mars is the fourth planet from the sun. It is commonly known as the Red Planet due to its rusty-colored soil. It is the only rocky planet (rocky planets are those that are not made up of gasses, which includes all the inner planets), and it is the only one of these planets that have more than one moon.

Mars being the next planet to Earth takes about 30 Earth hours to orbit around the sun. We already have landed several rovers on Mars, gaining a lot of information about the red planet and its moons. Six rovers have landed on Mars so far (Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity, Perseverance), and unbeknown to many, there is one from China, which landed on the planet on  May 15th, 2021. 

Mars’ Moons Overview

Renowned astronomer Asaph Hall discovered two moons on Mars in 1877. They are called Phobos and Deimos. These names have been given after the names of the twin sons of Ares, the god of war in Greek mythology. Mars was the Roman counterpart of Ares. 

Phobos and Deimos are different from Earth’s moon and are among the smallest known moons of the solar system. They are more like captured asteroids by the planet’s gravity.

Mras moons as seen from Mars
The relative sizes of Deimos and Phobos as seen from the surface of Mars, compared to the relative size in the sky of the Moon as seen from Earth. Deimos and Phobos photo taken by Mars Rover Curiosity on Aug. 1, 2013. (Wikipedia-NASA Public Domain)

What are Mars’ Moons Made of?

Astromenors believe that Phobos and Deimos are made of carbon-rich rocks mixed with ice. It is also believed that they materialized from asteroids.

Phobos

Phobos, meaning panic or fear, is the larger moon of Mars and orbits very close to the planet, i.e. at 3,728 miles. This makes it the only moon in the Solar System that orbits that close to its planet. Phobos completes its orbit in around seven hours and completes three orbits in one Martian day. In its longest dimension, Phobos is only 17 miles long and has a gravitational pull of only 1/1,000th that of Earth. 

Scientists have discovered that Phobos is gradually moving closer to its home planet, and every 100 years it moves around 5.9 feet closer to Mars’ surface. Additionally, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley have found that the gravitational pull of Mars, which is pulling Phobos towards it, has been opening grooves, as wide as 328–656 feet and as long as 33–98 feet, on the moon’s surface.

It is expected that Phobos will either collide with Mars or break up to form a ring around the planet in about 50 million years, so if you are planning on spending time on a Martian colony, plan to leave before the 50 million years are up. That’s just a heads-up! With that said, Phobos, being one of the darkest objects in our solar system and labeled ‘fear’, it would make for a good sci-fi movie!

Neptune’s moon Triton is also said to be in a similar situation, but we’ll discuss this moon at another time.

Deimos

Deimos, meaning terror, is the smallest of Mars’ moons measuring only about 9.3/7.8 miles across. However, it orbits farther away than the Phobos, i.e. at a distance of about 14.577 miles. It takes about 30 Earth hours for Deimos to complete one orbit. Deimos is also less irregular in shape than Phobos.

Both Phobos and Deimos are dark, reddish in color, cratered, lumpy, covered with dust, loose rocks, and elongated in shape rather than round. According to scientists, both of Mars’ moons seem to be captured asteroids or may be made up of carbon-rich rock and ice.

Although scientists have not yet confirmed how these moons were formed, some, like Julien Salmon from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and his associate Robin Canup claim that they were formed when a larger object was broken as a result of a collision. Mars’ moons have at least one thing common to the earth’s moon, and that is they both always present the same face to Mars, as does our moon to Earth.

Scientists have been thinking of using one of the moons as the astronauts’ base to observe the planet and to launch robots to the surface of Mars. NASA is continuing its ongoing mission of exploring and eventually landing a person on Mars. 

Additionally, SpaceX is planning on landing people on Mars by 2024. Whether that is realistic or not, the fact remains that in 2022 and beyond, we have a lot to look forward to when it comes to space exploration!