NASA Podcasts

NE Live@Sun Earth Day 2011
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Sun Earth Day 2011 Tweet Up
- Troy Cline
- Michelle Thaller
- Dave Dooling
- Pete Eidenbach
- Eric Christian
- Thomas Moore
- Lou Mayo
- Holly Gilbert

NASA EDGE joins the Sun Earth Day Team and over a hundred of their twitter followers to celebrate this year’s SED theme “Ancient Mysteries and Future Discoveries.” Troy Cline and Peter Eidenbach talk about their experiences at multiple ancient solar sites, Dave Dooling discusses current solar observations and Michelle Thaller, Thomas Moore, Lou Mayo, Eric Christian and Holly Gilbert talk about NASA’s unique interest in studying the Sun. For the record, all interviews are SPF approved for viewing.

[Intro Music]

CHRIS: Coming up on The Best of NE Live.

BLAIR: It’s Sun Earth Day 2011.

CHRIS: We’ll be talking to solar scientists and educators.

BLAIR: And our additional special guests in studio, live, the Tweeters from the Sun Earth Day Tweet Up, or as I like to call them, the Twitterazzi.

CHRIS: Did you trademark that?

BLAIR: It’s pending after magnetospherence.

CHRIS: Troy, what is the theme for Sun Earth Day 2011?

TROY: Sun Earth Day this year is “Ancient Mysteries, Future Discoveries.” And as many of you know, we were talking earlier to our twitter crowd and our audience about Sun Earth Day. It’s been around for 10 years. Each year Sun Earth Day has a new theme. We started in year one with “Having a Solar Blast.” We moved from that into several more themes. You can go onto the Sun Earth Day website now and you’ll be able to see all the past Sun Earth Day themes.

BLAIR: I’ve been there. I go there often.

TROY: We’ll do a theme on you one year, Blair.

BLAIR: It’s the solar hair.

TROY: Solar Blair.

BLAIR: Solar Blair, there you go.


BLAIR: We like it.

CHRIS: Michelle, we’re looking at Sun Earth Day, which is a particular day today. We know that Sun Earth Day is every day.


CHRIS: When we look at the Heliophysics program as a whole, just how important is it to know about the sun?

MICHELLE: You’re going to be hearing from a lot of people today that are going to be talking to you about space weather, how that impacts the earth and our satellites and all of that. But to some degree I like to step back and say the sun is absolutely everything to us. When I was a kid, one of my favorite facts from grade school was the very energy that my brain is using for my neurons to fire or my muscles to move came from the sun. All the energy on the earth came from the sun originally from a nuclear reaction deep inside the core.

CHRIS: Right.

MICHELLE: So, literally the sun is everything to us. NASA has tons of satellites but we have about 18 of them right now that are simply tasked to looking at the sun, or how the sun interacts with the earth. There’s an armada of solar spacecraft up there run by NASA. So everything the sun does, every little hiccup right now, we’ve got a beautiful ringside seat.

BLAIR: Which is very helpful because we’re in solar maximum.


BLAIR: You get a good view of the most interesting times.

MICHELLE: We’re looking for the next few years to be incredible. The sun does this every 11 years. We’re just edging up on the peak of the cycle. We’re in for a show.

BLAIR: Speaking of good shows, we have a lot planned for today.

BLAIR: Ron, are we good? Good? We’re here with Dave Dooling at the Visitor Center at the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico. And Dave, you’ve created quite an exhibit here.

DAVE: Thank you.

BLAIR: Giving us context for the sun. What’s going on with this massive representation?

DAVE: Well, this is the sun at a scale of about 1:250 million. You blow it up 250 million times, that’s the diameter of the sun. It’s 18 feet wide and here’s Earth by comparison.


DAVE: Yes.

BLAIR: That’s pretty small.

DAVE: The whole purpose is to put the solar system, the planets in context with the sun and give people a better understanding of the one star that we have an intimate relationship with and really influences what goes on down here at Earth.

BLAIR: So Pete, we’re out here in the middle of this remote location and I’m wondering how in the world did you figure out that this might actually be the site of an ancient solar observatory?

PETE: Well, probably a combination of luck and circumstance. We were asked to do an archeological survey to see if there was anything that might be historic. Almost the last day of this survey, we were riding out on this long, exposed ridge that we’re standing on the site of right now. We came around an extremely weather beaten tree and here was this small, circular, round room, and there were lichen growing on the rocks that it was constructed out of. And in some cases the lichen had spanned gaps between adjacent rocks of as much as a half an inch. The lichen are a very slow growing plant, so we knew this structure hadn’t been built by our local boy scouts.

BLAIR: Let’s talk about some of these images. What is this particular image?

DAVE: Okay. This one is an image of sunspots. And again, earth in scale to sunspots, and what you have to keep in mind is these dark regions that we call spots are actually quite bright. They’re brighter than the tip of an arc welder’s torch. That tells you how much brighter everything is around here. What’s going on is magnetic flux tubes erupt from the interior of the sun, arc into space, and then back down into the interior. The strength of the magnetism is about 2 to 3 thousand times the strength of magnetism here at the surface of earth, in a much larger volume; many, many times the volume of earth, as it sweeps into space. So, that’s a tremendous amount of energy. Just a small part of the sun’s total energy but this is what drives space weather. Inside, is on the order of about 7,000 to 8,000 Fahrenheit, so you only need SPF 500,000.

BLAIR: That’s right, which you can get at any convenience store.

DAVE: I’ve got a couple of gallons at home if you want.

BLAIR: And to our viewers, please, reapply after swimming.

DAVE: Yes.

PETE: The geometry suggested that from the location of this rock room we had found that the winter solstice sunset would set right behind Sierra Blanca Peak, which is across the valley from this ridge. We did the observations and the winter solstice sunset was spectacular behind Sierra Blanca. Surprisingly the winter solstice sunrise also came up behind a prominent feature, a peak called, Pajarito Peak, 23 miles away. If we were correct and this was an astronomical site, there aught to be another site right there at Pajarito Peak. Three years later, we were guided by an old prospector who was familiar with the region.

YUKON: The name is Yukon Cornelius, the greatest prospector in the north!

PETE: He took us right out to Pajarito Peak and low and behold there was the same sort of stuff as well as prehistoric artifacts, ceramics and chipped stone, confirming our conjecture that it was prehistoric. And given the geometric relationship, the only explanation was that it had an astronomical purpose. It’s crucial for a species, especially one that is expanding from one environment into another. You really need to know something about the calendar and astronomy. The baseline of all astronomy, still, is the sun.

CHRIS: On deck, we have Eric Christian, Tom Moore, and Lou Mayo.

BLAIR: Of course first we need to talk to Troy Cline who is apparently visited several ancient solar observatories.

CHRIS: Land of the Lost?

BLAIR: Oh come on Chris. Everyone knows LOL is Jurassic.

TROY: One of the things I have to tell you is when you’re watching a solar alignment take place in front of you, whether it be something called sun daggers or two shafts of light because of the angle of the sun hitting certain rocks, ancient people, like the ancient Pueblo people and ancient Anasazi Indians of the Southwest, would look at how the light played across these rocks and in shadows and would create daggers of light in certain places that they marked with petroglyphs. I thought that was going to be pretty cool to see. We’ll take pictures, and all the educators and workshops will make some materials for that. But what blew me away, what really grabbed me, was the feeling that was overwhelming when you watch something like that happen. For instance, how many of you have watched a total solar eclipse? When that happened, were you expecting at that moment the feeling? You don’t. People start reacting and suddenly you are part of the grander scheme of things in the universe. You suddenly see and feel and experience that connection. Those are our forefathers of humankind. And they’ve been studying the sun for centuries and many cultures have been studying the sun throughout the world for centuries. What we love to do is draw attention to the respect of those cultures and what those people did that have helped us get to the point to where we are today. People have been studying the sun for centuries for a variety of different reasons. Before, it was a means of survival for planting, growing and ceremony. But today, we still study the sun…

BLAIR: For survival.

TROY: …as a means of survival as we go into space, and we send satellites.

CHRIS: That’s a great segue because we’ve talked about the ancient mysteries, ancient observatories, and now, in the second half, let’s look at the future discoveries.

CHRIS: Eric, what is IBEX all about?

ERIC: IBEX stands for the Interstellar Boundary Explorer. It’s part of the Explorer Program at NASA. It’s an extremely successful, little spacecraft that’s looking at the very edge of our solar system.

CHRIS: My understanding is it’s about the size of a stop sign?

ERIC: It’s about the size of a truck tire in height. You could fit it on the desk here.

CHRIS: Okay.

ERIC: It’s really very small as satellites go. It’s in earth orbit but a very elliptical earth orbit that goes almost all the way out to the moon. From earth orbit, it takes images of the distant parts of our solar system, way out beyond Pluto in what’s called the solar wind termination shock and the heliopause.

CHRIS: What do you mean by termination shock and heliopause?

ERIC: A solar wind termination shock is a region where the solar wind, which is moving really fast, a million miles/hour, includes to the earth. At some point it has to slow down very quickly and that’s what’s called the solar wind termination shock.

CHRIS: From what I understand the solar wind is shooting out toward the boundary layer actually helps us from all the galactic cosmic rays from coming in?

ERIC: The solar wind has actually blown a bubble in interstellar space. It’s not only the solar wind; it’s the magnetic field that comes along with the solar wind that’s really doing it. The solar wind and the magnetic field act as a force field. There are galactic cosmic rays, radiations coming from super novas distant in the galaxy. The solar wind termination shock, the region out there acts as a force field and reduces the number that hit the earth by quite a bit. Then the earth’s magnetic field actually reduces that even more and the atmosphere really knocks it down so we’re safe here on earth without all the radiation. It’s understanding how that has changed with time is one of the things IBEX is looking at because over the history of the earth, that bubble has gotten really small; maybe even gotten small enough that it was inside the orbit of the earth, so we weren’t protected by it. It can get bigger. Understanding how the solar system interacts with the rest of the galaxy is important.

CHRIS: My question is this IBEX satellite is the size of a truck tire. How do you collect data that’s millions and millions of miles away orbiting around the earth?

ERIC: IBEX is a real fun experiment because it takes images but not with light the way you think of a normal camera. It takes images with a special type of particle called an energetic neutral atom. It’s an atom that starts out its life as a charged particle. That’s how it gets accelerated up to some fraction of the speed of light and then it collects an electron and becomes neutral again. Once it becomes neutral it travels straight just the way a photon; just the way light does. Because it travels straight you can use it to image. That’s what IBEX does. It has two one-pixel cameras that by spinning it takes a steady image over six months of the edge of the solar system where these energetic, neutral atoms are created.

CHRIS: What would this image look like?

ERIC: Here is one of the maps. This is a flat projection looking from the inside out at the sphere of the edge of our solar system.

CHRIS: Okay.

ERIC: What you see here is actually this feature, which we call a ribbon of really bright, energetic neutral atoms. It’s something that has surprised us all. No one expected it. It wasn’t predicted by any models. And we still don’t know. There’s something out at the edge of the solar system that’s generating a lot of particles that we see with IBEX but we don’t know what’s doing it.

FRANKLIN: I don’t know if anybody else is concerned about that band of particles on the outer end of our solar system they just talked about. I just left the movie Battle Las Angeles the other day and I’m somewhat concerned. I’m somewhat concerned. Guys.

THOMAS: It’s just plain mysterious. There was no explanation for it in advance. And there are several models of what it might be now. One of them says maybe that’s the interstellar material out beyond the boundary of the solar system reconnecting with the magnetic field of the solar system and the sun. We don’t know if that’s the right answer but we do know that there’s reconnection, quote, unquote, occurring at the earth at its magnetopause when solar wind rams into it. And that’s what the MMS mission is all about. It’s four spacecraft flying…

BLAIR: There you go.

THOMAS: …in formation, taking a dip through perigee, pass the earth and then heading out again toward the magnetopause, which is the boundary between the earth’s magnetic field and the solar magnetic field and the solar atmosphere. And when you see it go through that boundary here, it will happen in an eye blink. It’s hard to record with instruments, so we’re going to have basically very high-speed instruments running.

BLAIR: Is that the primary place where you’ll be gathering data, is right at that point?

THOMAS: There’s actually two; one on the day side where the solar wind rams in and what happens is the solar wind connects to the earth and then it disconnects from the earth on the night side or the tail. So, we have another observing point back there.

CHRIS: We’re talking about future discoveries but we have two very old spacecraft at the edge of our solar system. Don’t we, Lou?

LOU: That’s right. Voyager 1, & 2 spacecraft are the furthest out we’ve ever sent anything. And they are just approaching what we might call the edge of the solar system. You might define the edge of the solar system in a variety of ways; by how far does gravity go or the sun’s light but it turns out that there’s a real boundary called the heliopause. And beyond the heliopause, you’re outside of interplanetary space. You’re outside of the effects of the sun’s magnetic field and charged particles into true interstellar space, where now the Voyagers, when they get there, will be sensing interstellar winds from things like super novas and so on. It’s amazing.

BLAIR: Is there an interoffice pool on what we’ll find when we get outside of the solar system?

LOU: Not yet but I’ll take your money afterward.

BLAIR: I don’t have much.

CHRIS: When we were talking to Eric Christian about IBEX, he showed us that picture of the ribbon. He said that Voyager 1 & Voyager 2 were on the outside of that ribbon. Is there any way that the Voyagers can detect that ribbon that is out there?

LOU: The Voyagers and IBEX are working together on some really exciting ways. IBEX is detecting the edges of the heliosphere from remote sensing. But the voyagers are actually out there in, what we call, in-situ measurements. They have cosmic ray detectors, radio plasma detectors, magnetic field detectors. They’re actually sensing it as it’s happening.

FRANKLIN: Someone wants to know how long do you expect the Voyager spacecrafts to last?

LOU: That’s a great question. Listen, Voyager is the best bang for your buck that you ever got with NASA. It launched in 1977 and was originally designed to go to Jupiter and Saturn, then we sent Voyager onto Uranus and Neptune. We then decided, hey, we can use some of these instruments to go on into what’s called the Voyager Interstellar Mission. We’re cycling instruments on and off now to conserve power but it looks like we’ll be able to communicate with both Voyagers 1, & 2 till about the year 2020, maybe 2025.

CHRIS: How long does Voyager 1 go until it becomes VGR?

LOU: Ah, that’s in about three sequels.

CHRIS: Okay, okay.

CHRIS: It may take more than three sequels to find VGR but let’s talk to Holly Gilbert, our favorite Solar Physicist.

BLAIR: Of course, Holly is more of an expert on SDO and STEREO. By the way, what’s a VGR?

CHRIS: Voyager from Star Trek.

BLAIR: Everyone knows Star Trek, the motion picture, isn’t logical.

HOLLY: We’re very excited because SDO was launched in February of 2010. And it is providing unprecedented images of the sun at very high temporal resolution and spatial resolution, which allows us to see the very birthplace of where space weather is born. Sun spot regions are regions of very intense magnetic field and produce what we call flares, CMEs, the magnetic fields get tangled up and release a massive amount of energy. When that energy or those CMEs and the flares are directed towards the earth, it can impact us here. It can interfere with our magnetosphere.

BLAIR: Causing?

HOLLY: Magnetospherence, exactly.

BLAIR: Magnetospherence. See how that would just work into your spiel ever so nicely.

HOLLY: It does. It’s perfect. We’re taking multi-wavelength imaging so we can see the sun in different temperatures at the same time. Which is important because there are many, many layers in the atmosphere. We can see detailed information of the activity that is going on, which again, is extremely important at the high temporal resolution so that we’re not missing anything; continuous observations in all these wavelengths, extremely important for space weather.



CHRIS: What’s the update on STEREO?

HOLLY: STEREO is very exciting now because for the first time we are able to see the entire surface of the sun, meaning all 360˚ around because we had launched STEREO spacecraft which are twin satellites that are moving away from each other slowly. About a month ago, they finally reached a point where we can actually see the entire surface of the sun. That’s important because in order to see the active regions and those sun spot regions that are in the backside when they might be coming and rotating around and impacting the earth.


HOLLY: For eight years, we’re going to get continuous observations of the entire surface of the sun. So that’s extremely important and exciting for those of us that study space weather.

BLAIR: We asked Holly to continue to show off her solar physicist skills in our Sun Earth Day solar game.

CHRIS: She’s 7 for 7 with 3 questions to go. Will she get all 10 correct?

BLAIR: She has to. She’s very competitive.

CHRIS: Here we go.

CHRIS: So what we’re looking at, that part of the sun, what would you call that particular zone?

HOLLY: Do you want me to answer before anybody else?

BLAIR: Is everybody cool? Do you have your answer?

CHRIS: You all have your answers, right? Okay.

BLAIR: Okay. It’s you against them.

HOLLY: That would be the convective layer.

CHRIS: Very good. Excellent.

BLAIR: Okay, yes.

CHRIS: Who got that right?

HOLLY: Yeah.

CHRIS: We’ve got one in the back.

BLAIR: Career intact for Holly.

CHRIS: I think we have a couple more.

BLAIR: Okay, yes.

HOLLY: The corona because that’s the outer atmosphere of the…

BLAIR: Hey, you didn’t give the audience a chance to think about that.

HOLLY: Sorry.

CHRIS: But you knew it was corona, right?

BLAIR: All right.

CHRIS: This is going to be the last one. This is the toughest one out of them all. I just want you to focus in on the arrow on this because I don’t think she’s going to get this.

BLAIR: Okay, this is key. There you go. See that?

HOLLY: Is it the radiative zone? Is there a little spot right there?

BLAIR: All right, Ron do you want to magnify that a little bit? See, there you go.


CHRIS: You see the little white dot there?

HOLLY: There’s some person in the middle of the sun there. Is that you Blair?


CHRIS: They actually found, I think it was SDO/STEREO, found little white spot.


BLAIR: It’s not me. Yep, there you go.

[crowd laughing]

HOLLY: It is Blair. I’m sorry.

BLAIR: You see, what’s rough about this was when I was in elementary school and we would watch this show I was called Heat Miser for weeks.


BLAIR: All I had to do was walk in the room and the song would start.


BLAIR: Which I will not sing for scaring purposes both ways. Nice one.

CHRIS: Congratulations. Give her a big round of applause everybody. Good job.

HOLLY: Whew! I was scared.

FRANKLIN: The question is, are all types of solar activity dangerous?

HOLLY: Only a fraction of the flares or the coronal mass ejections are directed towards the earth. And even those, not every coronal mass ejection that hits the earth is going to cause problems. Several things have to be correct for the series of events to happen for us to have issues here. So, no only a fraction of the solar activity impacts us here on earth.

LOU: Let me just add to that. The sun puts out two kinds of energy. It puts out particle energy, the solar wind and things that Holly’s been talking about. It also puts out electromagnetic energy. The really good news for us is our atmosphere intercepts most of the high-energy radiation from the sun, the gamma rays, the x-rays, almost all of the ultraviolet rays, not all of them, of course, because you guys still get sunburns and suntans. But it filters them right out, doesn’t let them get to the ground. Our atmosphere actually plays a stronger role as a magnetosphere in protecting us.

FRANKLIN: What is the time lag between the time space weather originates on the sun and it reaches here on earth?

HOLLY: The energetic particles that come from flares can get here very fast. They travel almost at the speed of light, so within minutes, a little bit more than 8 minutes. For coronal mass ejections, they have a variety of speeds. Some of them are slower than others. Some of them are very fast and can travel as fast as 2,000 km/sec; so between a day and three days before they actually reach the earth. That helps us to mitigate those effects if we have to put satellites into safe mode or anything like that.

BLAIR: How are STEREO and SDO protected, because they’re much closer? If we have little time to put them in safe mode, how do they respond to different solar activity?

HOLLY: That’s a good question.

LOU: One of the ways we protect our spacecraft is that we take the very sensitive electronics in the spacecraft and we do something called radiation hardening of these electronics. Any time we go into regions with high particle activity like the magnetosphere of Jupiter, or come near the sun, we run the risk of electrons and protons from the sun really messing up our sensitive electronics. And the better our electronics get the more susceptible they are. So, there is a technique where we radiation harden them and make them a little bit more pervious to these effects.

CHRIS: Before we wrap up we have a treat for you. As you know, this is Sun Earth Day 2011, and we’re fortunate enough to be working with the Sun Earth team in 2012 for a great event that’s going to take place in June. So, we have a cool promo we want to show you. Check it out.

CHRIS: For centuries, astronomy has been an essential part of life for the people of Hawaii.

BLAIR: In 1874, King David Kalākaua invited seven British Astronomers to Hawaii to witness a rare and predictable astronomical event forever altering the way we understand our solar system.

CHRIS: Next year, this unique solar event returns – viewable in its entirety from Hawaii’s many advanced, high tech observatories.

BLAIR: As planet and star align, what will we discover? The sky is the limit!

BLAIR: In June of 2012, NASA EDGE will be here in Hawaii in the Shadows of the Sun…

CHRIS: bringing you live coverage of the Transit of Venus!

CHRIS: We want to thank everyone for watching the show today and we look forward to seeing everyone at the Transit of Venus in 2012. See you then.

BLAIR: Wait a minute Chris. According to my notes, we still have 23 seconds left.

CHRIS: Ah, right. Ah, let’s just introduce them to our new QR code.

BLAIR: That bar code. Is that on the screen now?

CHRIS: It sure is.

BLAIR: Okay, so anybody that has a Smart Phone with an application that reads bar codes, you can aim it at the screen now and what will they get Chris?

CHRIS: Blair, just make sure you don’t connect the dots.

BLAIR: Connect the dots? It’s not one of those 3D viewer…

CHRIS: There’s no picture in there. No.

BLAIR: Just aim it at the screen and you should be good to go.

CHRIS: You see the picture in there?

CHRIS: Do you have to defocus your eyes? I don’t think it’s 3D.

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