Out of all the potentially dangerous phenomena that occur above our heads in space, solar flares rank among the least deadly. However, these explosive bursts of flaming plasma and electromagnetic energy remain a threat to electrical grids, communications networks, and satellites. If the Earth were to be hit by a massive solar flare, or coronal mass ejection (CME), the resulting electrical disturbances could be significant enough to disable power grids and destroy any devices plugged into electrical outlets.
While our feeble little planet currently has no defenses against CMEs, scientists are developing solar flare detection systems to at least give us a little warning so that we can pull our precious iPhone chargers out of the wall in time. However, despite so much attention paid to CMEs, their exact cause still remains a mystery. It’s believed that long chains of burning plasma called flux ropes occasionally reach a high enough solar altitude to break the Sun’s gravity, causing a corresponding whip-like effect similar to a stretched rubber band being released. While scientists have held this theory for years, it has never been tested.
Until now, that is. Scientists at The California Institute of Technology have used plasma guns in carefully-controlled laboratory conditions to create miniaturized versions of solar flares in an attempt to better understand their nature. By testing a number of different variables that affect the formation of solar flares, researchers were able to publish a hypothesis that proposes fluctuations in the Sun’s magnetic field as the cause of CMEs.
According to their published data in Geophysical Research Letters, the strength of the magnetic strapping field that holds the flux ropes in place must reach a critical level to allow the whiplash-like acceleration that can send solar flares hurtling towards Earth at speeds up to 3000 km/hr:
When the strapping field is not too strong and not too weak, expansion forces build up while the flux rope is in the strapping field region. When the flux rope moves to a critical height beyond the peak strapping field region, the plasma accelerates quickly corresponding to the observed slow rise to fast acceleration of solar eruptions.
While this research might not do much to protect the defenseless electronic devices here on Earth, understanding the causes of CMEs might enable astronomers to better predict when the might occur, buying Earthlings a few precious hours to unplug their toasters before the Sun’s energy ruins them forever. Because seriously, who likes their Eggo waffles cold? Nobody, that’s who.