NOAA / Space Weather Prediction Center

A Primer on Space Weather

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Our Star, the Sun
We all know that the Sun is overwhelmingly important to life on Earth, but few of us have been given a good description of our star and its variations.

The Sun is an average star, similar to millions of others in the Universe. It is a prodigious energy machine, manufacturing about 3.8 x 1023 kiloWatts (or kiloJoules/sec). In other words, if the total output of the Sun was gathered for one second it would provide the U.S. with enough energy, at its current usage rate, for the next 9,000,000 years. The basic energy source for the Sun is nuclear

fusion, which uses the high temperatures and densities within the core to fuse hydrogen, producing energy and creating helium as a byproduct. The core is so dense and the size of the Sun so great that energy released at the center of the Sun takes about 50,000,000 years to make its way to the surface, undergoing countless absorptions and re-emissions in the process. If the Sun were to stop producing energy today, it would take 50,000,000 years for significant effects to be felt at Earth!

The Sun has been producing its radiant and thermal energies for the past four or five billion years. It has enough hydrogen to continue producing for another hundred billion years. However, in about ten to twenty billion years the surface of the Sun will begin to expand, enveloping the inner planets (including Earth). At that time, our Sun will be known as a red giant star. If the Sun were more massive, it would collapse and re-ignite as a helium-burning star. Due to its average size, however, the Sun is expected to merely contract into a relatively small, cool star known as a white dwarf.

It has long been known that the Sun is neither featureless nor steady. (Theophrastus first identified sunspots in the year 325 B.C.) Some of the more important solar features are explained in the following sections.

Sunspots Sunspots
Sunspots, dark areas on the solar surface, contain strong magnetic fields that are constantly shifting. A moderate-sized sunspot is about as large as the Earth. Sunspots form and dissipate over periods of days or weeks. They occur when strong magnetic fields emerge through the solar surface and allow the area to cool slightly, from a background value of 6000 ° C down to about 4200 ° C; this area appears as a dark spot in contrast with the Sun. The rotation of these sunspots can be seen on the solar surface; they take about 27 days to make a complete rotation as seen from Earth.
Sunspots remain more or less in place on the Sun. Near the solar equator the surface rotates at a faster rate than near the solar poles.

Groups of sunspots, especially those with complex magnetic field configurations, are often the sites of flares. Over the last 300 years, the average number of sunspots has regularly waxed and waned in an 11-year sunspot cycle. The Sun, like Earth, has its seasons but its “year” equals 11 of ours. This sunspot cycle is a useful way to mark the changes in the Sun. Solar Minimum refers to the several Earth years when the number of sunspots is lowest; Solar Maximum occurs in the years when sunspots are most numerous. During Solar Maximum, activity on the Sun and its effects on our terrestrial environment are high.

CME Coronal Mass Ejection (CME)
The outer solar atmosphere, the corona, is structured by strong magnetic fields. Where these fields are closed, often above sunspot groups, the confined solar atmosphere can suddenly and violently release bubbles or tongues of gas and magnetic fields called coronal mass ejections. A large CME can contain 1016 grams (ten billion tons) of matter that can be accelerated to several million miles per hour in a spectacular explosion. Solar material streaks out through the interplanetary medium, impacting any planet or spacecraft in its path. CMEs are sometimes associated with flares but usually occur independently.
Flares Flare
Solar flares are intense, short-lived releases of energy. They are seen as bright areas on the Sun in optical wavelengths and as bursts of noise in radio wavelengths; they can last from minutes to hours. Flares are our solar system’s largest explosive events. The primary energy source for flares appears to be the tearing and reconnection of strong magnetic fields. They radiate throughout the electromagnetic spectrum, from gamma rays to x-rays, through visible light out to kilometer-long radio waves
CoronalHoles Coronal Holes
Coronal holes are variable solar features that can last for weeks to months. They are large, dark areas when the Sun is viewed in x-ray wavelengths, sometimes as large as a quarter of the Sun’s surface. These holes are rooted in large cells of unipolar magnetic fields on the Sun’s surface; their field lines extend far out into the solar system. These open field lines allow a continuous outflow of high-speed solar wind. Coronal holes have a long-term cycle, but the cycle doesn’t correspond exactly to the sunspot cycle; the holes tend to be most numerous in the years following sunspot maximum. At some stages of the solar cycle, these holes are continuously visible at the solar north and south poles.
Effects of Space Weather Storms
Aurora Aurora
The aurora is a dynamic and visually delicate manifestation of solar-induced geomagnetic storms. The solar wind energizes electrons and ions in the magnetosphere. These particles usually enter the Earth’s upper atmosphere near the polar regions. When the particles strike the molecules and atoms of the thin, high atmosphere, some of them start to glow in different colors. Aurora begin between 60 and 80 degrees latitude. As a storm intensifies, the aurora spread toward the equator. During an unusually large storm in 1909, an aurora was visible at Singapore, on the geomagnetic
equator. The aurora provide pretty displays, but they are just a visible sign of atmospheric changes that may wreak havoc on technological systems.
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