For most of human history, solar flares have been a non-issue—they weren’t even observed until 1859. Since the development of radio and other technologies that rely on the electromagnetic radiation, however, solar flares (and the intense magnetic storms they produce) have become problematic. Because solar flares are capable of disrupting both land- and space-based electronics, their study has become a priority for governments and scientific organizations alike. This Plan takes an in-depth look at the physics behind solar flares using data collected by the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), a satellite launched by NASA in 2010.
Because solar flares are caused by the movement of plasma (a state of matter composed of ionized particles) in the Sun’s atmosphere, scientists primarily describe them using magnetohydrodynamics (MHD), a framework that combines fluid mechanics and electromagnetic theory. During an internship at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the Plan’s author used MHD and CHIANTI software to analyze and compare two C8 class solar flares observed by the SDO. Data from the two flares led to the conclusion that the traditional Geostationary Operational Environment Satellite (GOES) classification scheme for solar flares cannot be used to predict the observational signatures of specific flares. Later on, the author had the opportunity to present this research at the American Geophysical Union and the American Astronomical Society.
“Solar phenomena capable of disrupting electronics systems are impossible to control or prevent; the large scale disruption of essential systems by solar phenomena can only be mediated through prediction and appropriate response. Solar physics, as a discipline, aims to develop our knowledge of these events as well as provide information to aid in minimizing their detrimental effects.”
“Along with a notable increase in temperature, a flare is characterized by increased emission in wavelengths ranging from hard x-rays to radio over the course of seconds to hours.”
Reflections on Plan
“I took a tutorial called Solar Physics Research which allowed me to spend several hours a week conducting research for Plan. Most of my time was spent creating and running programs to acquire data from several satellites. I met with my Plan sponsor, Sara Salimbeni, once or twice a week to discuss the course of my research and how to turn it into a presentable Plan paper. Towards the end of the tutorial, my time was spent drafting a poster to present at a national conference.”