A solar flare erupting from the sun's surface. (Photo : Wikimedia Commons)
The 2012 summer brought a flurry of fireworks that had nothing to do with the Fourth of July. Powerful solar flares from sunspots erupted around Independence Day in America worrying scientists that X-class flares might disrupt satellites, power grids or astronauts. Now, scientists have figured out that the breakdown of radioactive materials may provide some insight into when the sun will release solar storms and published their findings in the Astroparticle Physics journal.
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The findings could be important as the sun approaches solar maximum next year. Solar maximum reaches a peak every 11 years. Large solar storms occur during this time and sunspots are common. A solar storm in 1859 was so powerful that the northern lights became visible from Rome. The next solar maximum is expected to take place around next year.
These powerful ejections from the sun's surface can have an impact on technology here on Earth because they can induce geomagnetic storms. X-class flares can affect astronauts in space and satellites; and there are around 1,000 satellites orbiting the Earth.
In response to this, two scientists have studied data and figured out that gamma radiation may predict the coming of solar flares.
Professor Jere Jenkins from Purdue University helped come up with the theory with professor Ephraim Fischbach when he noticed that the rate of radioactive decay had changed during a televised space walk at the International Space Station which featured a solar flare
The scientists do not know how the solar particles affect radioactive decay, but they are confident that there is a link. Radioactive particles such as uranium usually decay at a constant rate. But it seems that solar particles might change that rate of decay.
"It's the first time the same isotope has been used in two different experiments at two different labs, and it showed basically the same effect," Prof Fischbach told the BBC.
Keep in mind that a solar flare earlier this summer knocked out some minor radio communications. A more powerful and consistent one could have a dramatic effect, and if this system is accurate, it would allow scientists to shut down satellites during storms to keep them better functioning.