NASA scientists study sunspots to help understand major flares

Shane McGlaun - Oct 9, 2020, 7:51am CDT
NASA scientists study sunspots to help understand major flares

A new study published by NASA scientists looks at sunspots, darkened patches on the sun caused by its magnetic field. While NASA has spacecraft that can observe sunspots more closely, the researchers studied them at low resolution as if they were trillions of miles away. The team was going for a simulated view of distant stars to help them better understand stellar activity and conditions for life on planets orbiting distant stars.

Researcher Shin Toriumi, lead Arthur of the new study and a scientist at the Institute of Space and Astronomical Science for JAXA, the Japanese space agency, said the team wanted to know what a sunspot region would look like if they were unable to resolve it in an image. Researchers used solar data on the Sun as if it came from a distant star to better connect solar and stellar physics.

Sunspots often occur ahead of the solar flare, which is an intense energy outburst from the surface of the sun. Monitoring sunspots is important because solar flares can impact life on earth and life aboard the ISS or other spacecraft. Researchers on the project also believe that understanding the frequency of solar flares on stars other than the sun is key to understanding the chance of planets orbiting that star harboring life.

The study began by looking at high-resolution data of the Sun from the NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory and the JAXA/NASA Hinode joint mission. Adding the light and each image allows the scientists to convert high-resolution images into single data points. Researchers were able to create plots of how the light changed as a sunspot passed across the Sun’s rotating surface. Those plots were known as light curves and gave scientists a look at what a sunspot on the Sun would look like from many light-years away.

The study looked at cases where a single sunspot was visible across the face of the sun. Researchers found that light curves differed when measured in different wavelengths. In visible light, a single sunspot in the center of the Sun makes the Sun appear dimmer. When the sunspot is at the edge of the star, it’s actually brighter. The team also hopes to understand what triggers superflares on the Sun.

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