08May2019

What Can We Learn from Heliophysics?

The sun is one of the constants in our universe. It rises in the east, sets in the west and makes its cycle every day without fail. Even on cloudy days, the sun is still there.

While we’re not quite there yet technology-wise, we can all still benefit from studying the sun

We take it for granted, or might not even notice it unless it’s hidden behind the clouds on a day that you want to go to the beach. That’s where heliophysics comes in. What is heliophysics, and what can we learn from this branch of astronomy?

What Is Heliophysics?

First, what is heliophysics? The word means “the physics of the sun” with helio coming from the French word for the sun. It’s translated from the French phrase heliophysique, with the same definition. This word was first coined as the study of the outer layers of the sun, but in 1981, it was expanded to include the entire star, from its center to its corona.

Heliophysics is a branch of heliology — the study of the sun — which in itself is a branch of astronomy. Essentially, heliophysicists study the sun, the energy it releases and how it can affect us both here on Earth and outside of our atmosphere.

Heliophysics Missions

For something so close to us, galactically speaking, the sun is difficult to study. Until recently, we haven’t been able to get close enough to the surface of the star to get any meaningful readings that left us relying on data collected from outside the star’s heliosphere.

There have been a great variety of heliophysics missions since 1996, but the one that’s been in the news the most lately is the Parker Space Probe. This specially-outfitted probe is designed to withstand the extreme heat of the sun. Launched in August 2018, the probe completed its first pass between the end of October and the beginning of November in 2018 and even sent back pictures from inside the corona of the star.

This picture is one that heliophysicists have been waiting 60 years to see. What can we learn from the study of the physics of the sun?

Solar Weather

The sun releases millions of supersonic energy particles every single day. If you’ve ever seen the Northern Lights, you’ve seen what happens when those particles interact with our planet’s magnetosphere — the magnetic shield that surrounds Earth and protects it from radiation and solar energy. Some of those particles do get through.

We see them in the form of light, and in the sunburn, you might get if you spend the day outside without any sunscreen, but the magnetosphere deflects the majority of the energy. Space weather doesn’t just make pretty lights and affect how our solar system moves. It can also affect us right here on Planet Earth.

Flares, Storms and Electronics

Studying the sun gives researchers and space enthusiasts a way to predict the kind of space weather that might cause problems down here on Earth. We’ve become increasingly dependant on electronics in our daily life — everything from the phone in your pocket to the life-support machines in your local hospital is dependant on electronic components.

In 1859, a massive solar storm rocked our planet. They didn’t have cell phones back there, but the energy was enough to devastate the telegraph system throughout the Northern hemisphere. Now called the Carrington Event, this storm was so powerful that telegraph operators were getting shocked by their machines, and even when they were unplugged, the telegraphs still tried to relay their messages.

If an enormous coronal mass ejection could do that kind of damage to ancient technology like the telegraph, imagine what it would do to our technologically-steeped society? Heliophysics gives us the tools to predict these events so they can’t catch us off guard. It might still be devastating, but at least we would be prepared for it.

Terrestrial Weather

Sunspots, or dark spots in the sun’s corona, occur regularly. Researchers can time them pretty accurately, so when they disappeared for nearly 5000 years, it was a shock. Between 1300 and 1870, Europe experienced what is now called the Little Ice Age — winters were colder, and many researchers attribute that to the lack of sunspots indicating that the sun was cooler during that period than it is currently.

By studying the physics of the sun, with tools like the Parker Space Probe and telescopes here at home, we can learn the star’s patterns. If we start moving into another Little Ice Age because the sun goes into a cooling period, we’ll be prepared.

Solar Sailing Into the Future

Solar weather and more particularly solar winds are a favorite tool of science fiction writers who design great ships that use massive energy sails to capture the energetic particles in the solar winds and use them like sailors used to use the wind. While we’re not quite there yet technology-wise, we can all still benefit from studying the sun. If you’re interested in the state of our home star at any given time, there’s a tool for that — Space Weather.com, which keeps track of all of the changes that our sun goes through.

Next time you look up at the sky, think about heliophysics and all that our star could teach us.

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Written By: Megan Ray Nichols – Associate Editor of Astro Space News
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