In May 1921, a massive burst of protons and electrons from the Sun, known as a coronal mass ejection, enveloped Earth. If that same event happened today, a recent report from the American National Academy of Science argued, it would take down one-third of the US power grid, causing an estimated $10 trillion damage to industry which would need up to a decade to repair.
So, the development by University of Sydney physicists Iver Cairns and Vasili Lobzin of the Automated Radio Burst Identification System (ARBIS) software—which can provide up to three days’ warning of such an event, allowing protective action to be taken—is significant.
Defending the Earth against solar attack
The program automatically samples chunks of data from the Learmonth (Western Australia) and Culgoora (northern New South Wales) Solar Observatories for the specific frequency patterns which herald particular types of solar bursts. When there are reasons for concern, the software automatically sends out warning emails to recipients all over the world.
ARBIS is the legacy of more than 60 years of listening to the radio emissions of the Sun, a field pioneered by Paul Wild, former chair of Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO. Solar physics flowered in Australia during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, according to Paul Cally of Monash University, whose interests include studying the complex and ever-fluctuating magnetic fields around the Sun, and helioseismology, probing the internal structure of the Sun by analysing its electromagnetic vibrations.
“A lot of researchers are not aware of the significant historical role the study of the Sun has played in development of astronomy and astrophysics,” he says.
He notes that CSIRO will contribute the tuneable electromagnetic filter at the centre of the visible imager and magnetograph—an important instrument for probing the structure of the Sun— to be carried by the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter, which is expected to be launched early in 2017.
PHOTO: SUNSPOT LOOPS IN ULTRAVIOLET. CREDIT: NASA/TRACE.
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