The Sun is our star. It provides us with energy produced in its core. Protons merge together to create helium. This nuclear reaction raises energy. In the outer layers, the heat moves in convective cells. Electrical currents of charged gas create magnetic fields which eventually push their way to the surface. The gas pushes the magnetic fields further outwards until eventually millions of tonnes of gas is ejected from the Sun, creating a solar storm.
In Trinity College Dublin, the Solar Physics Group, directed by Dr Peter Gallagher, is studying the phenomenon and this is where I am doing my PhD research. My research involves an understanding of solar activity and its connection with technology. Understanding the physics behind solar activity will enable us to predict the arrival time of solar storms on Earth. Solar activity can be disruptive for satellites, wireless telecommunications, power grids, oil pipelines and transmissions.
Together with my supervisor, Dr Gallagher and my colleague, Eoin Carley, we have created a radio observatory, as part of the Rosse Observatory, which is located in Birr, Co. Offaly, in the midlands of Ireland. In Birr, we have a location that is exceptionally radio quiet. The main instrument of the observatory is the callisto radio spectrograph, which is used to measure the radio emissions from the Sun. The fully remote-controlled antenna records the solar activity day by day, providing important information about the solar storm’s starting time and its propagation through space.
What’s the future of the observatory? Dr Peter Gallagher comments, “The Rosse Observatory was really a first step towards trying to develop a capability in Ireland to monitor the sun. But the next step for Ireland is to develop a really advanced facility. That facility is called Lofar. This is a European project, that the Europeans have invested €200 million in, and Ireland wants to be part of that. Lofar will bring Irish scientists to the forefront of global astronomy. It will enable us to take fine resolution pictures of the surface of the sun and get a real understanding of what’s happening on the sun and ultimately how it affects us on Earth.
Let me take you through what happens during a solar storm. After six hours, the storm reaches the planet Mercury and then, after twelve hours, it reaches Venus. After sixteen hours, the storm arrives on Earth. The Earth’s magnetic field deflects the storm, protecting the Earth. Some of the magnetic fields couple together, creating a tunnel for the gas that streams on the poles, creating a spectacular result – the Aurora Borealis.
The same cause of the spectacular Auroras can be a problem for technology. This is what my research investigates.