Archive for Sun

Watch “Why the Universe is quite disappointing really – Episode 2” on YouTube

Posted in The Universe and Stuff, YouTube with tags , , on May 8, 2020 by telescoper

Episode 2, in which I explain how stars limp along unimpressively, making very poor use of the resources available to them, not doing a very good job at what they’re supposed to be doing, and then they die.

Just like people really…

On the Surface of the Sun

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 30, 2020 by telescoper

There are some wonderful images and movies going around from the Daniel K Inouye Solar Telescope which has produced the highest resolution images of the solar surface ever seen.

Here’s a snapshot:

And here’s a movie:

In the above image you can see the granular structure of the Sun’s photosphere. The cells you can see are a manifestation of the large-scale convective motions that transport energy from the Sun’s inner regions to the surface. This energy is created by nuclear reactions in the solar core and it sets up convective motions in the outer layers rather like those in a pan of boiling water set up by heating from below (or perhaps the gentler motions that appearin a lava lamp).

The surface structure looks surprisingly regular but the highly turbulent magnetized plasma is responsible to an extraordinary range of activity, from sunspots, flares and prominences, to the heating of the solar corona and the generation of the solar wind.


Dark Matter from the Sun?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on October 16, 2014 by telescoper

This afternoon while I was struggling to pay attention during one of the presentations at the conference I’m at, when I noticed a potentially interesting story going around on Twitter. A little bit of research revealed that it relates to a paper on the arXiv, with the title Potential solar axion signatures in X-ray observations with the XMM-Newton observatory by Fraser et al. The first author of this paper was George Fraser of the University of Leicester who died the day after it was submitted to Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The paper has now been accepted and the final version has appeared on the arXiv in advance of its publication on Monday. The Guardian has already run a story on it.

This is the abstract:

The soft X-ray flux produced by solar axions in the Earth’s magnetic field is evaluated in the context of ESA’s XMM-Newton observatory. Recent calculations of the scattering of axion-conversion X-rays suggest that the sunward magnetosphere could be an observable source of 0.2-10 keV photons. For XMM-Newton, any conversion X-ray intensity will be seasonally modulated by virtue of the changing visibility of the sunward magnetic field region. A simple model of the geomagnetic field is combined with the ephemeris of XMM-Newton to predict the seasonal variation of the conversion X-ray intensity. This model is compared with stacked XMM-Newton blank sky datasets from which point sources have been systematically removed. Remarkably, a seasonally varying X-ray background signal is observed. The EPIC count rates are in the ratio of their X-ray grasps, indicating a non-instrumental, external photon origin, with significances of 11(pn), 4(MOS1) and 5(MOS2) sigma. After examining the constituent observations spatially, temporally and in terms of the cosmic X-ray background, we conclude that this variable signal is consistent with the conversion of solar axions in the Earth’s magnetic field. The spectrum is consistent with a solar axion spectrum dominated by bremsstrahlung- and Compton-like processes, i.e. axion-electron coupling dominates over axion-photon coupling and the peak of the axion spectrum is below 1 keV. A value of 2.2e-22 /GeV is derived for the product of the axion-photon and axion-electron coupling constants, for an axion mass in the micro-eV range. Comparisons with limits derived from white dwarf cooling may not be applicable, as these refer to axions in the 0.01 eV range. Preliminary results are given of a search for axion-conversion X-ray lines, in particular the predicted features due to silicon, sulphur and iron in the solar core, and the 14.4 keV transition line from 57Fe.

The paper concerns a hypothetical particle called the axion and I see someone has already edited the Wikipedia page to mention this new result. The idea of the axion has been around since the 1970s, when its existence was posited to solve a problem with quantum chromodynamics, but it was later realised that if it had a mass in the correct range it could be a candidate for the (cold) dark matter implied to exist by cosmological observations. Unlike many other candidates for cold dark matter, which experience only weak interactions, the axion feels the electromagnetic interaction, despite not carrying an electromagnetic charge. In particular, in a magnetic field the axion can convert into photons, leading to a number of ways of detecting the particle experimentally, none so far successful. If they exist, axions are also expected to be produced in the core of the Sun.

This particular study involved looking at 14 years of X-ray observations in which there appears to be an unexpected seasonal modulation in the observed X-ray flux which could be consistent with the conversion of axions produced by the Sun into X-ray photons as they pass through the Earth’s magnetic field. Here is a graphic I stole from the Guardian story:


Conversion of axions into X-rays in the Earth’s magnetic field. Image Credit: University of Leicester

I haven’t had time to do more than just skim the paper so I can’t comment in detail; it’s 67 pages long. Obviously it’s potentially extremely exciting but the evidence that the signal is produced by axions is circumstantial and one would have to eliminate other possible causes of cyclical variation to be sure. The possibilities that spring first to mind as an alternatives to the axion hypothesis relate to the complex interaction between the solar wind and Earth’s magnetosphere. However, if the signal is produced by axions there should be characteristic features in the spectrum of the X-rays produced that would appear be very difficult to mimic. The axion hypothesis is therefore eminently testable, at least in principle, but current statistics don’t allow these tests to be performed. It’s tantalising, but if you want to ask me where I’d put my money I’m afraid I’d probably go for messy local plasma physics rather than anything more fundamental.

It seems to me that this is in some sense a similar situation to that of BICEP2: a potentially exciting discovery, which looks plausible, but with alternative (and more mundane) explanations not yet definitively ruled out. The difference is of course that this “discovery paper” has been refereed in the normal way, rather than being announced at a press-conference before being subjected to peer review…

Coronal Rain

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on September 17, 2013 by telescoper

Well it’s dark and gloomy and pouring with rain on the day on which I’m required to do the most running about on campus. I think we could all do with another look at the Sun – which might otherwise fade into a distant memory. This is no ordinary look at the Sun, though, it’s a spectacular video taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. According to the description on Youtube,

Eruptive events on the Sun can be wildly different. Some come just with a solar flare, some with an additional ejection of solar material called a coronal mass ejection (CME), and some with complex moving structures in association with changes in magnetic field lines that loop up into the Sun’s atmosphere, the corona.

On July 19, 2012, an eruption occurred on the sun that produced all three. A moderately powerful solar flare exploded on the Sun’s lower right hand limb, sending out light and radiation. Next came a CME, which shot off to the right out into space. And then, the Sun treated viewers to one of its dazzling magnetic displays — a phenomenon known as coronal rain.

Over the course of the next day, hot plasma in the corona cooled and condensed along strong magnetic fields in the region. Magnetic fields, themselves, are invisible, but the charged plasma is forced to move along the lines, showing up brightly in the extreme ultraviolet wavelength of 304 Angstroms, which highlights material at a temperature of about 50,000 Kelvin. This plasma acts as a tracer, helping scientists watch the dance of magnetic fields on the Sun, outlining the fields as it slowly falls back to the solar surface.

The footage in this video was collected by the Solar Dynamics Observatory’s AIA instrument. SDO collected one frame every 12 seconds, and the movie plays at 30 frames per second, so each second in this video corresponds to 6 minutes of real time. The video covers 12:30 a.m. EDT to 10:00 p.m. EDT on July 19, 2012.

Those are the facts, and here is the video, which is simply stunning:

Cosmology, Escher and the Field of Screams

Posted in Art, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on March 20, 2012 by telescoper

Up early this morning for yet another busy day I thought I’d post a quick follow-up to my recent item about analogies for teaching physics (especially cosmology).

Another concept related to the cosmic microwave background that people sometimes have problems understanding is that of last scattering surface.

Various analogies are useful for this. For example, when you find yourself in thick fog you may have the impression that you are surrounded by an impenetrable wall at some specific distance around you. It’s not a physical barrier, of course, it’s just the distance at which there sufficient water droplets in the air to prevent light from penetrating further. In more technical terms the optical depth of the fog exceeds unity at the distance at which this wall is seen.

Another more direct analogy is provided by the Sun. Here’s a picture of said object, taken through an H-α filter..

What’s surprising to the uninitiated about an image such as this is that the Sun appears to have a distinct edge, like a solid object. The Sun, however, is far from solid. It’s just a ball of hot gas whose density and temperature fall off with distance from its centre. In the inner parts the Sun is basically opaque, and photons of light diffuse outwards extremely slowly because they are efficiently scattered by the plasma. At a certain radius, however, the material becomes transparent and photons travel without hindrance. What you see is the photosphere which is a sharp edge defined by this transition from opaque to transparent.

The physics defining the Sun’s photosphere is much the same as in the Big Bang, except that in the case of the Sun we are outside looking in whereas we are inside the Universe trying to look out. Take a look at this image from M.C. Escher:

The universe isn’t actually made of Angels and Demons – at least not in the standard model – but if you imagine you are in the centre of the picture  it nicely represents what it is like looking out through an expanding cosmology. Since light travels with finite speed, the further you look out the further you look back into the past when things were denser (and hotter). Eventually you reach a point where the whole Universe was as hot as the surface of a star, this is the cosmic photosphere or the last scattering surface, which is a spherical surface centred on the observer. We can’t see any further than this because what’s beyond is hidden from us by an impenetrable curtain,  but if we could just a little bit further we’d see the Big Bang itself where the density is infinite, not as a point in space but all around us.

Although it looks like we’re in a special place (in the middle) of the image, in the Big Bang theory everywhere is equivalent; any observer would see a cosmic photosphere forming a sphere around them.

And while I’m on about last scattering, here’s another analogy which might be useful if the others aren’t. I call this one the Field of Screams.

Imagine you’re in the middle of a very large, perhaps infinite, field crammed full of people, furnished with synchronised watches, each of whom is screaming at the top of their voice. At a certain instant, say time T, everyone everywhere stops screaming.

What do you hear?

Well , you’ll obviously  notice that it gets quieter straight away as the people closest to you have stopped screaming.  But you will still hear a sound because some of the sound entering your ear set out at a time before t=T. The speed of sound is 300 m/s or so, so after 1 second you will still hear the sound arriving from people further than 300 metres away. It might be faint, but it would be there. After two seconds you’d still be hearing from people further than 600 metres away,. and so on. At any time there’ll be circle around you, defined by the distance sound can have travelled since the screaming stopped – the Circle of Last Screaming. It would appear that you are in the centre of this circle, but anyone anywhere in the field would form the same impression about what’s happening around them.

Change sound to light, and move from two dimensions to three, and you can see how last scattering produces a spherical surface around you. Simples.


A First Problem in Astrophysics

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on February 25, 2011 by telescoper

When I first arrived at Cambridge University (nearly 30 years ago) to begin my course in Natural Sciences, eventually leading to a specialism in Physics, one of the books we were all asked to buy was the Cavendish Problems in Physics. One of the first problems I had to solve for tutorial work was from that collection, and I have been setting it (in a slightly amended form) for my own students ever since I started lecturing. I thought I’d put it up here because I think there might be a few budding theoretical astrophysicists who’ll find it interesting and because it provides a simple refutation of a crazy theory that has been doing the rounds on Twitter all morning.

I like this problem because it involves a little bit of lateral thinking, because not all the information given seems immediately relevant to the question being asked, but you can get a long way by just writing down the pieces of information given and thinking about how you might use simple physical ideas to connect them to the answer.

If you haven’t seen this problem before, why not have a go?

Using only the information given in this Question, estimate the ratio of the mean densities of the Earth and Sun:

i) the angular diameter of the Sun as seen from Earth is half a degree

ii) the length of 1° of latitude on the Earth’s surface is 100km

iii) the length of a year is 3×107 seconds

iv) the acceleration due to gravity at the Earth’s surface is 10 m s-2.

HINT: You do not need to look up anything else, not even G!

The answer you should get is that the mean density of the Earth is something like 3.5 times that of the Sun, although the information given in the question isn’t all that accurate.

In fact the mean density of the Earth is about 5500 kg per cubic metre, and that of the Sun is about 1400 kg per cubic metre; the average density of the Sun is just 40% higher than water, which is perhaps surprising to the uninitiated….

The density of solid iron on the other hand is about 7900  kg per cubic  metre, and even higher than that if it is compressed…

UPDATE: I’ve added my Solution.



Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on January 4, 2011 by telescoper

I’m told that there was a partial eclipse of the Sun visible from the UK this morning, although it was so cloudy here in Cardiff that I wouldn’t have seen anything even if I had bothered to get up in time to observe it. For more details of the event and pictures from people who managed to see it, see here. There’s also a nice article on the BBC website. The BBC are coordinating three days of programmes alongside a host of other events called Stargazing Live presumably timed to coincide with this morning’s eclipse. It’s taking a chance to do live broadcasts about astronomy given the British weather, but I hope they are successful in generating interest especially among the young.

As a spectacle a partial solar eclipse is pretty exciting – as long as it’s not cloudy – but even a full view of one can’t really be compared with the awesome event that is a total eclipse. I’m lucky enough to have observed one and I can tell you it was truly awe-inspiring.

If you think about it, though, it’s a very strange thing that such a thing is possible at all. In a total eclipse, the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun in such a way that it exactly covers the Solar disk. In order for this to happen the apparent angular size of the Moon (as seen from Earth) has to be almost exactly the same as that of the Sun (as seen from Earth). This involves a strange coincidence: the Moon is small (about 1740 km in radius) but very close to the Earth in astronomical terms (about 400,000 km away). The Sun, on the other hand, is both enormously large (radius 700,000 km) and enormously distant (approx. 150,000,000 km).  The ratio of radius to distance from Earth of these objects is almost identical at the point of a a total eclipse, so the apparent disk of the Moon almost exactly fits over that of the Sun. Why is this so?

The simple answer is that it is just a coincidence. There seems no particular physical reason why the geometry of the Earth-Moon-Sun system should have turned out this way. Moreover, the system is not static. The tides raised by the Moon on the Earth lead to frictional heating and a loss of orbital energy. The Moon’s orbit  is therefore moving slowly outwards from the Earth. I’m not going to tell you exactly how quickly this happens, as it is one of the questions I set my students in the module Astrophysical Concepts I’ll be starting in a few weeks, but eventually the Earth-Moon distance will be too large for total eclipses of the Sun by the Moon to be possible on Earth, although partial and annular eclipses may still be possible.

It seems therefore that we just happen to be living at the right place at the right time to see total eclipses. Perhaps there are other inhabited moonless planets whose inhabitants will never see one. Future inhabitants of Earth will have to content themselves with watching eclipse clips on Youtube.

Things may be more complicated than this though. I’ve heard it argued that the existence of a moon reasonably close to the Earth may have helped the evolution of terrestrial life. The argument – as far as I understand it – is that life presumably began in the oceans, then amphibious forms evolved in tidal margins of some sort wherein conditions favoured both aquatic and land-dwelling creatures. Only then did life fully emerge from the seas and begin to live on land. If it is the case that the existence of significant tides is necessary for life to complete the transition from oceans to solid ground, then maybe the Moon played a key role in the evolution of dinosaurs, mammals, and even ourselves.

I’m not sure I’m convinced of this argument because, although the Moon is the dominant source of the Earth’s tides, it is not overwhelmingly so. The effect of the Sun is also considerable, only a factor of three smaller than the Moon. So maybe the Sun could have done the job on its own. I don’t know.

That’s not really the point of this post, however. What I wanted to comment on is that astronomers basically don’t question the interpretation of the occurence of total eclipses as simply a coincidence. Eclipses just are. There are no doubt many other planets where they aren’t. We’re special in that we live somewhere where something apparently unlikely happens. But this isn’t important because eclipses aren’t really all that significant in cosmic terms, other than that the law of physics allow them.

On the other hand astronomers (and many other people) do make a big deal of the fact that life exists in the Universe. Given what  we know about fundamental physics and biology – which admittedly isn’t very much – this also seems unlikely. Perhaps there are many other worlds without life, so the Earth is special once again. Others argue that the existence of life is so unlikely that special provision must have been made to make it possible.

Before I find myself falling into the black hole marked “Anthropic Principle” let me just say that I don’t see the existence of life (including human life) as being of any greater significance than that of a total eclipse. Both phenomena are (subjectively) interesting to humans, both are contingent on particular circumstances, and both will no doubt cease to occur at some point in perhaps not-too-distant the future. Neither tells us much about the true nature of the Universe.

Let’s face it. We’re just not significant.


The Sun’s not Behaving…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on December 6, 2010 by telescoper

Check out this dramatic and slightly alarming picture of a huge filament emanating from the surface of the Sun, courtesy of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. The filament is about 700,000km long, apparently – that’s an entire Solar Radius. It’s expected to collapse back into the Sun at some point, an event which should be rather exciting! For more details see here.

Even better, here’s a close-up animation.

It reminds me a bit of that Balrog thing in The Lord of the Rings that gave Gandalf such a good run for his money.