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Science Nation: Sunspots Revealed

5 minutes

(Describer) Streams of light collide to create a globe filled with water. Title: Science Nation. A green image of a sphere has lighter blotches around the middle.

(male narrator) Sunspots--they've fascinated sky gazers through the ages. Now state-of-the-art telescopes combined with the muscle of a supercomputer called Bluefire are allowing scientists to accurately model these mysterious structures and unlock their secrets.

(male) Sunspots are the manifestation of very strong magnetic fields. At the solar surface,

(Describer) Michael Knolker:

they are cooler than their surroundings. This is why we see them as dark spots on an otherwise much brighter solar disk.

(Describer) Sitting on a scooter, he goes down a hall with another man.

(narrator) Michael Knölker and Matthias Rempel are solar scientists working at the High Altitude Observatory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, known as NCAR, in Boulder, Colorado funded by the National Science Foundation.

(Describer) Rempel:

Studying sunspots is extremely important for understanding how stars like the sun produce magnetic fields, which is one of the big, outstanding, unanswered questions in stellar astrophysics.

(narrator) Scientists know sunspot activity waxes and wanes on an 11-year cycle, and it is often accompanied by solar flares. Sunspots are also associated with coronal mass ejections, or solar storms, in which a massive cloud of charged particles erupts from the sun and washes out across the solar system.

(Describer) Knolker:

(Knölker) In a slow release process, slow at the beginning, a magnetic bubble pops off out of the solar atmosphere, is then accelerated very quickly and then drifts into interplanetary space.

(narrator) Geomagnetic storms are triggered when those charged particles hit the earth's magnetic field, which envelopes the planet like a cocoon extending out into space. That extra energy jolt to the system can do some serious damage.

(Knölker) With that disturbance come disruptions of short wave radio communications, radiation exposure for astronauts who are in orbit, and other consequences that, in modern society, we are very concerned about.

(Describer) Many electrical towers stand together.

(narrator) The power grid is also particularly vulnerable, as more juice zapping through the atmosphere can overload transformers. Maybe the only good thing about a geomagnetic storm is it lights up the auroras, putting on a spectacular light show.

(Describer) In a photo, a red field glows from a light green curve in the sky.

This photo was taken by a scientist at NCAR in the aftermath of a solar storm. The northern lights are rarely seen as far south as Colorado.

(Knölker) That is the beautiful side of a geomagnetic storm.

(Describer) Other images show rings of light around northern parts of the Earth.

And it has drawn the attention of humans since the beginning of human consciousness, we believe.

(Describer) An animation shows a turning satellite.

(narrator) Floods of new data from solar telescopes, like the orbiting Hinode, is helping scientists perfect their sunspot models, including what's going on inside the sun.

(Describer) Rempel:

(Rempel) When we do a numerical simulation, we want to make the connection between what we can observe at the surface and the motions of ionized gas in the layers beneath several thousands of kilometers beneath the surface.

(Describer) The low sun glows gold over an ocean.

(narrator) Better understanding of sunspots also will help scientists understand the role solar cycles play in climate change on earth. Knölker believes what we are observing related to climate change the past 30 years should clearly be chalked up to human activity. But, he says, the sun is also playing a role over time.

(Knölker) There cannot be any doubt that this research area has an obligation to humanity to pin down to what extent the solar activity variations play a role in climate.

(narrator) A deeper grasp of the working of our own star helps us as we look beyond our solar system for earth-like planets elsewhere in the cosmos. Those, as yet, unfound pale blue dots are orbiting their own suns. The more we understand our own solar system, the better prepared we'll be to understand others.

(Describer) A globe turns.

For Science Nation, I'm Bruce Burkhardt.

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Sunspots have fascinated sky gazers through the ages. Now state-of-the art telescopes combined with the muscle of a supercomputer called “Bluefire” are allowing scientists to accurately model these mysterious structures, and unlock their secrets. Michael Knoelker and Matthias Rempel are solar scientists working at the High Altitude Observatory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, known as NCAR, in Boulder, Colorado. With support from the National Science Foundation, their study of sunspots is critical to the understanding of how stars, like the sun, produce magnetic fields which is still one of the big unanswered questions in stellar astrophysics.

Media Details

Runtime: 5 minutes

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