Researchers Track Erupted Solar Flares Causing Northern Lights

Researchers are tracking erupted solar flares that sent plasma towards the Earth on Feb. 15.

The UCSD team is using a satellite monitor known as Solar Mass Ejection Imager to track the plasma from the flares — which disrupted telecommunications on Earth in China and created an aurora borealis — considered the largest solar flare that has erupted since December 2006.

Research physicist Bernard Jackson said he was surprised to discover aurora borealis, or northern lights, while looking at data from the SMEI — developed by UCSD’s Center for Astrophysics and Space Science in 2003. SMEI is traveling on the Coriolis satellite that’s orbiting around Earth.

“We didn’t count on seeing aurora from that high orbit, about 840 kilometers,” Jackson said. “Most aural processes die out at a few hundred kilometers.”

Solar flares cause geomagnetic storms, auroras and satellite outages that can be predicted by the SMEI. Jackson said his team can watch the events in real time as the solar flare moved out.

The most intense solar flare occurred on Feb. 14, traveling at 580 miles per second.

Jackson’s research focuses on solar flare events, the disruptions they cause and their morphology. Jackson is currently observing flares for three months in Japan, where he is analyzing differences between solar flare material when it passes through space and when it reaches Earth.

“We are interested in order to learn the true extent of the event energy and how this is manifest and directed throughout the heliosphere,” Jackson said.

The instruments Jackson created has played a large role in the discovery of aurora borealis during a solar flare. SMEI was created to view solar wind, also known as Thomson scattered light.

“It was a unique instrument; no one has ever tried to do this,” Jackson said. “No one had tried to view the whole sky, the space between the stars.”

The SMEI was intended to last two years, but has now been in space for over seven years, located in a lower orbit 842 kilometers above the Earth, where the light meets dark.

“For me, I was very interested in building a massive imaging ejector to answer the questions I couldn’t answer with the technique of planetary simulation,” Jackson said. “It could get velocities but not materials.”

The instrument carefully removes the light from the stars, the zodiacal light — also known as dust — and stray light from the sunlight to view the Thomson scattered light. SMEI makes 102-minute orbits and measures the brightness of the sky around the earth.

The solar flare activity has increased recently because of a very long solar minimum period, about 40 years. The solar maximum is usually once every 11 years, which is when solar activity is at it’s highest.

“In the future I expect quite a few events that are bigger,” Jackson said of the solar flares. “If SMEI continues to be operable, then it will be involved in forecasting.”