Sun science; plasma, eruptions and the apocalypse!

Words by Lucy Eland, Edited by Joe Crutwell

PhD student Thomas Rees-Crockford enlightened the audience at The Old George with his research into the science of the sun. Tom, a first year PhD student from Northumbria University Physics Department, has been studying prominences and eruptions that happen above the sun’s surface, almost 93 million miles away.

The evening began with a pint and a quick physics lesson on the fourth state of matter, plasma. The enthusiastic audience was eager to learn more about this substance, and the other gases that make up our sun.

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We were shown some awesome satellite footage of the sun and its prominences, the amazing tubes of densely packed plasma, that are moved around the stars surface by magnetic fields and other forces. These huge structures can be between 10,000 and 100,000 km in length and are a cool 10,000 degrees kelvin! Still too hot to handle, but a lot cooler than the sun’s surface.

When these prominences become unstable, after between a minute and a month of appearing, they either fade out (boring!) or erupt (much more fun!). A successful eruption, known as a ‘coronal mass ejection’ (CME), expels the matter out and away from the sun’s surface and in some cases, towards us. This doesn’t always spell disaster though! When we see the Aurora Borealis (Northern lights) it is as a result of one of these CMEs, as the matter expelled from the sun collides with our atmosphere’s gas particles and results in this incredible light show.

Many more beers and questions followed, including discussions of whether we could use the energy from such eruptions for something useful, how predictors of the northern lights are made, what the methods used to study these eruptions are, and how cool the Kielder observatory is! (https://www.kielderobservatory.org/)

The potentially apocalyptic effect of the earth being hit head-on by a massive CME was discussed at length. The somewhat reassuring conclusion was reached that if we don’t all die, we will just have to live without any of our electronic devices, knocked out by magnetic forces. (A fate worse than death for some.)

Hopefully that won’t happen for a while, which means you will be able to join us for the next SciBar event on the 25th of July, where Ajay  Tiwari will be telling us how bacteria talk to each other.

If you would like to see some of the images and satellite footage used by scientists like Tom, who are studying solar physics, it is available to the public at www.helioviewer.org.

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