Frontiers of Science: Sunstorms

“Frontiers of Science: Sunstorms,” Friend, Aug.–Sept. 1979, 17

Frontiers of Science:


There are storms, and then there are STORMS!

In previous articles we have learned about the huge windstorms of Earth that bring dust from the Sahara Desert all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Islands. We have also been introduced to the amazing planet-wide duststorms of Mars. Then there was the Great Red Spot of Jupiter, a gigantic hurricane-like storm—big enough to swallow Earth and Mars together—that has raged more or less continuously for centuries. Now we encounter a set of storms that makes all of the others we have considered shrink into insignificance—“sunstorms.”

Our sun is actually a star, located about 93 million miles from Earth. Its outer temperature is measured in thousands of degrees, while its inner temperature may reach into the millions of degrees. Normally we are only aware of its great constancy as day after day it rises and sets in predictable fashion, giving us warmth and light. When men first began to train telescopes on the sun, however, they noticed some peculiarities. There were dark spots that moved slowly across the bright face of the solar disc. Some were small, about the size of the Earth, while others were large enough to contain hundreds and even thousands of Earths. They were given the name sunspots.

As scientists developed more and better tools with which to study the sun, they learned that sunspots were areas of somewhat cooler temperatures than the surrounding surface of the sun. They also discovered that bright areas bordering on sunspots often erupted with a tremendous release of energy and hot gases. These eruptions—known as solar flares—could not be matched by the force of a billion hydrogen bombs.

Throwing out hundreds of thousands of tons of matter at speeds of millions of miles per hour, a solar flare would pose great dangers for any space traveler unfortunate enough to find himself in the path of one of these sunstorms. Inhabitants of Earth, however, are protected by the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field. Nevertheless, the effects of solar flares are still felt—Auroras or Northern Lights (borialis) and Southern Lights (australis) in the Southern Hemisphere illuminating the night skies, compass needles on ships and airplanes swinging erratically, electric power transformers breaking down, and interruptions of long-distance radio and telephone communications. These effects are only temporary, however. When the solar storm subsides, things again return to normal.

But there are subtle variations of solar storm activity that may produce even more substantial changes here on Earth. For example, the number of sunspots per year has been charted by scientists for several centuries. And they appear to increase to their maximum in roughly eleven-year cycles that may be related to some weather cycles we experience. Then there have been longer periods of time when practically no sunspots have been observed. One such period, between 1650 and 1710, coincided with a time of intense cold for our planet that has been called “The Little Ice Age.” Many scientists feel that the lack of sunspots and their accompanying solar storms in some way caused this cold period.

A more constant feature of solar storm activity is the solar wind, a stream of hot electrified gas particles that continually rushes out from the sun to as far as the orbit of Pluto. First directly measured by Mariner II in 1962, the solar wind is much like a great rocket blast, having temperatures of hundreds of thousands of degrees and speeds of hundreds of thousands of miles per hour.

Periodically, there are also high-speed jets in the solar wind that approach speeds almost as great as the speed of light!

In an attempt to learn more about these various sunstorms, the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the European Space Agency are making plans for a “Solar Polar” mission to the sun. Scheduled for launch in February of 1983, it would consist of two spacecrafts launched from the Earth’s orbit. The crafts would first be sent away from the sun to Jupiter, where the powerful gravity of that giant planet would be used to bend their trajectories and help boost them out of the plane within which the planets all circle the sun (the ecliptic plane) and from which no spacecraft has ever before been able to escape. The crafts would then return toward the sun and be able to observe its poles, areas of great intrigue for scientists who are attempting to unravel the mystery of solar storm activity.

Will the mission be successful? Let us hope so. For the more we can learn about the sun, the better we will be able to comprehend this wonderful universe created by our Father in Heaven.

1. One of the most spectacular solar flares ever recorded stretches over 350,000 miles across the sun’s surface. (NASA photograph taken by Skylab IV on December 19, 1973.)

2. An artist’s conception of one of the two Solar Polar spacecrafts beginning its long and complicated journey to the sun after being delivered into Earth orbit by the Space Shuttle. (NASA artwork.)

3. The planned flight paths of the two Solar Polar spacecrafts from the Earth to Jupiter, and then back to the North and South Poles of the sun. (NASA artwork.)

4. A large group of sunspots as seen on the whole disc of the sun (top) and as enlarged (bottom). The two points show the locations of the sun’s North and South Poles. (Hale Observatories photo of April 7, 1947.)

5. Another huge solar eruption that makes the Earth look like a pinpoint by comparison. (Navel Research Laboratory photo.)