Scientists have found the exact source of the dangerous rays that shoot out from the Sun and threaten activities on Earth.
High-energy particles are shot out of the Sun during solar storms that erupt in its outer atmosphere.
They can be incredibly important and dangerous to life on Earth – not only can they potentially harm air passengers and satellites, scientists fear they might one day be hit by a major disruptive storm that could cause more lasting and substantial damage.
In 1859, a large solar storm called the Carrington Event caused widespread problems with telegraph systems in Europe and the United States.
Given our current dependence on electricity, a repeat storm of this magnitude could be much more devastating.
Researchers at University College London (UCL) and George Mason University in the US believe they have located where these particles are coming from in the sun, in an attempt to better predict when they might strike again.
Their findings, published in the journal Science Advances, indicate that the particles have the same “fingerprint” as the plasma located in the lower part of the solar corona, near the middle region of the solar atmosphere.
“In our study, we have looked for the first time exactly where solar energy particles come from in the sun,” said co-author Dr. Stephanie Yardley of UCL.
“Our evidence supports the theories that these highly charged particles originate from plasma that has been kept low in the Sun’s atmosphere by strong magnetic fields.
“These energetic particles, once released, are accelerated by eruptions that travel at a speed of a few thousand kilometers per second.
“Energetic particles can reach Earth very quickly, from several minutes to a few hours, and these events can last for days.
“Currently, we can only provide forecasts of these events as they occur, as it is very difficult to predict these events before they occur.
“By better understanding the processes of the sun, we can improve forecasts so that when a major solar storm hits, we have time to act and reduce risks.”
The researchers made the discovery using measurements from NASA’s Wind satellite, located between the sun and Earth.
They observed a series of streams of solar energetic particles, each lasting at least one day, in January 2014.
Lead author Dr. David Brooks of George Mason University added: “Our observations provide a tantalizing insight into where the material that produces solar energetic particles comes from in some events of the last solar cycle.
“We are now beginning a new solar cycle, and once it gets under way we will use the same techniques to see if our results are generally true, or if these events are somehow unusual.
“We are fortunate that our understanding of the mechanisms behind solar storms and solar energy particles is likely to advance rapidly in the coming years thanks to data to be obtained from two spacecraft, ESA’s Solar Orbiter and NASA. Parker Solar Probe, they are heading closer to the Sun than any spacecraft has ever been before. “
Additional reports from the Press Association