Researchers Trace the Origin of the Sun's Magnetic Field, Shedding Light on Space Weather and Solar Cycles (2024)

Researchers Trace the Origin of the Sun's Magnetic Field, Shedding Light on Space Weather and Solar Cycles (1)

The sun’s magnetic field could form much closer to the star’s surface than previously thought, according to new research published Wednesday in the journal Nature. The findings could help improve forecasts of solar activity that can affect satellites, power grids and communications systems on Earth—and producemagnificent auroras.

“This work proposes a new hypothesis for how the sun’s magnetic field is generated that better matches solar observations, and, we hope, could be used to make better predictions of solar activity,” Daniel Lecoanet, a co-author of the study and a fluid dynamicist at Northwestern University, tells CNN’s Katie Hunt.

Ellen Zweibel, an astrophysicist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who did not contribute to findings, calls the results “intriguing” in an editorial accompanying the article. “They could well furnish an interpretative framework for more elaborate models, and they are sure to inspire future studies.”

The flow of plasma within the sun creates the star’s magnetic field. This means the sun has two magnetic poles, like the Earth—but every 11 years, these poles flip positions. As the star goes through this cycle, it gradually shifts between periods of low and high activity.

Its magnetic field plays a role in events like solar flares, explosions that shoot energy, light and high-speed particles into space, as well as coronal mass ejections, solar magnetic storms that expel gas and magnetic fields. Dark areas on the sun’s surface called sunspots are also a result of the magnetic field and are thought to be tied to solar flares, coronal mass ejections and other space weather.

Right now, the sun is nearing the end of a cycle and approaching peak activity at its “solar maximum.” It’s currently experiencing intense solar storms that result in widespread auroras—like when, earlier this month, the strongest geomagnetic storm since 2003 caused the Northern Lights to be visible across much of the United States, even Florida.

Despite the importance of the sun’s magnetic field to all these events, scientists still don’t fully grasp its structure or how it is generated.

“We still don’t understand the sun well enough to make accurate predictions” of space weather, study co-authorGeoffrey Vasil, a mathematician at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, tells Marcia Dunn of the Associated Press (AP).

Researchers Trace the Origin of the Sun's Magnetic Field, Shedding Light on Space Weather and Solar Cycles (2)

In past work, researchers have assumed the magnetic field originates deep within the sun, somewhere around 130,000 miles beneath its surface. But the new study concluded the field’s origin is just 20,000 miles under the surface of the star.

To determine where the magnetic field begins, the researchers created models of the sun’s structure and ran them on a NASA supercomputer. They studied how small changes in the internal flow of plasma could lead to differences in the star’s magnetic field. When they modeled changes in the flow of plasma near the sun’s surface, the simulation produced magnetic structures in the same areas where sunspots truly occur, near the equator. Changes deeper in the sun, on the other hand, led to modeled fields near the sun’s poles, where they typically don’t occur in reality.

“Our work provides strong evidence that the solar cycle starts near the surface of the sun in the equatorial region,” Lecoanet tells Inverse’s Kiona Smith.

This conclusion goes against scientists’ conventional thoughts about the sun’s magnetic field. In the editorial, Zweibel calls the modeling “highly simplistic.”

“This is far from the final word on the problem,” says Steven Balbus, an astronomer at Oxford University in England who was not involved with the study, to MIT News’ Jennifer Chu. “However, it is a fresh and very promising avenue for further study... When the received wisdom has not been very fruitful for an extended period, something more creative is indicated, and that is what this work offers.”

Vasil tells New Scientist’s Leah Crane that it could be easier to predict the sun’s activity and study the magnetic field if it is closer to the surface. “If the magnetic fields are sitting there, then there is the most hope for actually being able to study them.”

Previous models have been unable to predict the strength of the next solar cycle. But with this information, the researchers hope they can. “We want to forecast if the next solar cycle will be particularly strong, or maybe weaker than normal,” Lecoanet tells Inverse.

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Researchers Trace the Origin of the Sun's Magnetic Field, Shedding Light on Space Weather and Solar Cycles (3)

Will Sullivan | | READ MORE

Will Sullivan is a science writer based in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in Inside Science and NOVA Next.

Researchers Trace the Origin of the Sun's Magnetic Field, Shedding Light on Space Weather and Solar Cycles (2024)


Researchers Trace the Origin of the Sun's Magnetic Field, Shedding Light on Space Weather and Solar Cycles? ›

In past work, researchers have assumed the magnetic field originates deep within the sun, somewhere around 130,000 miles beneath its surface. But the new study concluded the field's origin is just 20,000 miles under the surface of the star.

What is the origin of the sun's magnetic field? ›

The results showed that the magnetic field is generated about 20,000 miles below the Sun's surface, contradicting earlier studies that suggested that it was originating from about 130,000 miles below the sun's surface.

What happens to the sun's magnetic field during a solar cycle? ›

The Sun's magnetic field goes through a cycle, called the solar cycle. Every 11 years or so, the Sun's magnetic field completely flips. This means that the Sun's north and south poles switch places. Then it takes about another 11 years for the Sun's north and south poles to flip back again.

How does the sun's magnetic field affect the Earth's weather? ›

Solar flares emit x-rays and magnetic fields which bombard the Earth as geomagnetic storms. If sunspots are active, more solar flares will result creating an increase in geomagnetic storm activity for Earth.

What is the research of space weather? ›

Researchers study fluctuations on the Sun's surface and in its atmosphere to understand the origins and dynamics of space weather. Studying space weather provides insights into the behavior of the Sun as a star, and helps us understand how the Sun affects the planets, asteroids, and other Solar System bodies.

What is the origin of the magnetic field in the universe? ›

The making of magnetization

If a cosmic string passed through a plasma, those ripples in space-time could change the temperature and density of small pockets in the plasma. Those differences would set electric charges in motion, and they could become the beginnings of a magnetic field.

What causes the sun's magnetic field quizlet? ›

What is the source of the Sun's strong magnetic field? ○ The large shear at the boundary (at the "tachocline") between the uniform rotation of the radiative zone and the differential rotation of the convection zone above is believed to be the source of the Sun's strong magnetic field.

How do magnetic fields affect weather? ›

One possible way in which Earth's magnetic field may, affect the weather is by its controlling influence on the precipitation of charged particles from the magnetosphere.

What causes space weather? ›

The sun is the main source of space weather. Eruptions of plasma and magnetic field structures from the sun's atmosphere, called coronal mass ejections (CMEs), and sudden bursts of radiation, called solar flares, can cause space weather effects at or near Earth.

Does the solar cycle affect weather? ›

Space weather and terrestrial weather (the weather we feel at the surface) are influenced by the small changes the Sun undergoes during its solar cycle. The most important impact the Sun has on Earth is from the brightness or irradiance of the Sun itself.

How do scientists predict space weather? ›

SWPC forecasters analyze near-real-time ground- and space-based observations to assess the current state of the solar-geophysical environment (from the Sun to the Earth and points in between). Space weather forecasters also analyze the 27-day recurrent pattern of solar activity.

Can it rain in space? ›

In the vacuum of space, there is no water or air, and thus there also isn't any precipitation. But there is wind — solar wind — that isn't air at all, but instead is a stream of energy and plasma, or charged particles, from the Sun. Space weather storms are invisible but still impact Earth.

Do space weather effects solar storms affect Earth? ›

Strong electrical currents driven along the Earth's surface during auroral events disrupt electric power grids and contribute to the corrosion of oil and gas pipelines. Changes in the ionosphere during geomagnetic storms interfere with high-frequency radio communications and Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation.

What generates the sun's magnetic field? ›

The Sun's high temperatures cause the positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons that make up its plasma to move around a lot. The moving plasma creates many complicated magnetic fields that twist and turn. The extremely hot plasma that blows off the Sun as the solar wind. also causes a magnetic field.

What is the origin of the magnetic field of our planet? ›

The Earth's magnetic field is generated in the fluid outer core by a self-exciting dynamo process. Electrical currents flowing in the slowly moving molten iron generate the magnetic field.

What is the magnetic field in the sun? ›

Similar to our own planet, the sun is like a huge bar magnet with a north and a south pole producing a magnetic field. But the sun's magnetic field is about twice as strong as the Earth's and much, much larger, extending well beyond the farthest planet in the solar system. The sun's field is also a jumbled mess.

Why is the sun's magnetic field tangled? ›

Over time, the Sun's differential rotation rates cause its magnetic field to become twisted and tangled. The "tangles" in the magnetic field lines can produce very, very strong localized magnetic fields. Places where "ropes" of bundled field lines "break" the surface of the Sun are active regions where sunspots form.

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