Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

Irish scientists in solar storms breakthrough

Solar storms are huge eruptions of hot gas that carry billions of tonnes of matter
Solar storms are huge eruptions of hot gas that carry billions of tonnes of matter

Irish scientists have made what has been described as a 'big jump forward' in efforts to predict space storms that cause mobile phone calls to drop and also interfere in aircraft communications.

Researchers from Trinity College have shown -- for the first time -- a direct link between solar storms, caused by explosions on the sun, and solar radio bursts, which cause the potentially dangerous communications disruptions on Earth.

While the team used solar storm images captured by NASA at a cost of $500m, it was a €20,000 observatory in Birr, Co Offaly, that proved "critical" to identifying the missing link.

Solar storms are huge eruptions of hot gas that carry billions of tonnes of matter, travelling at millions of kilometres per hour, in Earth's direction.

The storms, which cause the Northern Lights, can also cause mobile phone calls to drop, disable satellites, and interfere with aircraft communications.

In addition, the radiation could be fatal to astronauts on space walks.

Scientists are currently trying to develop ways to accurately forecast the storms. And researchers involved in the Irish study -- just published in the journal 'Nature Physics' -- believe their findings will help towards this goal.

Trinity College Professor Peter Gallagher told the Irish Independent that establishing the link between the solar storms and disruptive radio bursts is "a big jump forward", explaining: "We always thought that the shockwave (from solar explosions) was generating radio waves but we were never able to take pictures of them and then look at the radio signatures at the same time.

"That's the first time it's been done."

Prof Gallagher was speaking from the Instituto de Astrofisica observatory in the Canary Islands, where he is working with an international team monitoring the sun for solar flares.

The Irish team worked with Trinity graduates based in London and Hawaii.

According to Prof Gallagher questions remain as to why not all solar explosions cause the radio waves.

"Until we understand that, we won't be able to make better forecasts," he said.

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