The Sun burps and the Earth reaches for the Lysol: Learn why in our Nov. 15 lecture, Our Explosive Sun

Welcome guest blogger Dr. David Alexander, Director of the Rice Space Institute.

If there’s one star in the sky that everyone can name — and point to, if needed — it’s the Sun. Kisosen, Wuriupranili, Huitzilopochtli, Bel, Ra, Sol, Apollo — the Sun has many names and has served many purposes for humanity over the ages. As a banisher of night, celestial timekeeper, or navigational aid, the Sun has been a constant presence over the history of humankind, bringing the hope of a new day and the renewal of returning spring.

Even today, in the early years of the 21st century, the Sun is no less important, although perhaps in a very different way. As we increasingly rely on technology in our daily lives, the Sun’s impact on the Earth can be both beautiful and alarming. The Earth is not only bathed in the light from the Sun but is embedded in its atmosphere, and as such is subject to the vagaries of the Sun’s dynamic activity. You might say that when the Sun burps, the Earth reaches for the Lysol.

Our Explosive Sun: The Source of the Northern Lights | Nov. 15 at HMNSSpectacular aurora over the city of Tromsø, Norway. Courtesy of Pål Brekke.

The Sun exhibits a wide range of energetic activity over a wide variety of timescales. The most dramatic of these are the so-called solar storms that drive clouds of ionized gas (plasma) outward from the Sun at speeds of millions of miles an hour. When these clouds reach the Earth some one to three days later, the effects can be catastrophic. The immediate effect is energizing the Earth’s magnetic environment in space, leading to a wide array of effects from enhanced atmospheric phenomena such as aurora, with the biggest storms generating aurora as far south as Houston, to increased particle energies and densities in low earth orbit, causing severe hazard for spacecraft and astronauts. In addition, the geomagnetic enhancements caused by these storms can also lead to noticeable effects on the ground, including the disruption of regional electrical grids with power outages being a not uncommon occurrence.

Today, a flotilla of spacecraft and a battalion of ground-based observatories are constantly monitoring the Sun across the electromagnetic spectrum and measuring the changing properties of the solar atmosphere, its magnetic field, and flow speed. Solar scientists use this huge wealth of information to generate an understanding of the physical processes that govern the solar variability and how the effects of this variability propagate through space and ultimately interact with the Earth.

Dr. Pal BrekkeDr. Pål Brekke

On Thursday, Nov. 15, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Rice Space Institute and the Royal Norwegian Consulate host solar physicist and author Dr. Pål Brekke of the Norwegian Space Centre for a lecture in the Museum’s Wortham Giant Screen Theatre as part of Transatlantic Science Week 2012. Dr. Brekke will present a visually spectacular tour of the solar atmosphere and the geomagnetic phenomena that it generates. So please, join us as we celebrate Apollo, the Sun, in all his celestial glory as he burps his way through the 21st century. Tickets are $18 and may be purchased in advance here.

About our guest blogger:  
Dr. David Alexander is a Professor of Physics and Astronomy and Director of the Rice Space Institute.  He is Chair of the Solar Physics Division of the American Astronomical Society and the Solar Heliospheric and Interplanetary Environment (SHINE) program.  He received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2004 and was appointed a Kavli Frontiers Fellow in 2006 by the National Academy of Sciences.  He is author of The Sun, part of the Greenwood Press Guides to the Universe series.

Final Frontier: Free Lecture Series at Rice University

From Dr. David Alexander, Rice Professor of Physics and Astronomy and creator of the Space Frontiers Lecture series:

As the International Space Station nears completion, humanity can proudly state that it has a permanent presence in space.  But what’s next?  Do we head for the Moon? Mars?

President Obama’s plan is to focus first on manned missions to nearby Earth asteroids by 2020 and then on to Mars by the 2030’s.  In addition, there is an increasing emphasis on the role played by commercial space enterprises in achieving these goals.  Long flights or a sustained mission to other bodies in the solar system presents a number of hazards to the astronauts who undertake these missions.  One way to minimize the dangers is to minimize the time it takes to travel to these distant outposts.

An exciting array of technologies are being developed which will revolutionize space flight and make such journeys possible. Are you ready for the Ceres truckstop,  the Sea of Tranquility McDonalds or the Mons Olympus theme park?

Concept art from NASA showing astronauts entering a Lunar outpost.

For the third in our series of lectures on the exploration of space, we welcome Dr. Franklin Chang Diaz, a national hero and the first Latino-American in the NASA astronaut program.  Dr. Chang Diaz is an inspirational figure whose current career is focused on developing an advanced propulsion system that will open up the solar system for exploration.

Join us at Rice and find out for yourselves!

Fast Missions to Mars and Beyond: Developing the VASIMR Engine with local astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz. The lecture  is Thursday, March 10 at 7 p.m. in McMurtry Auditorium at Rice’s Duncan Hall, with a wine and cheese reception beginning at 6:30 p.m.