Thursday, January 4, 2024

Coronal mass ejection from colossal New Year's Eve solar flare will strike Earth today

The coronal mass ejection CME was hurled into space by an X-class solar flare that burst from the surface of the sun at 4:55 p.m. EST (2155 GMT) on Sunday (Dec. 31). It is the most powerful flare that has happened on the sun during the current solar cycle, solar cycle 25, which began in Dec. 2019. In fact, the flare that ended 2023 with a bang is the largest that has been observed since Sept. 10, 2017, according to the Space Weather Prediction Center of the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

I'm always amused by these comparisons articles like to make. "Largest that has been observed since 2017". We're approaching solar maximum so the flares will be the largest in the cycle. The solar cycle is ~11 years so the last maximum was in the early 2010s, and the last minimum was in the late 2010s. "This solar flare at near maximum was bigger than the ones at the minimum" has substantially less punch.

Storms like this have the capability to cause weak fluctuations in power grids and could have minor impacts on satellite operations. In addition to this, G1 geomagnetic storms can give rise to striking auroras, beautiful light shows seen over Earth, usually at higher latitudes.

In 2003, during the last solar maximum — the peak of the sun's activity during the solar cycle 24  — an X45 flare was seen erupting from the sun, the most powerful solar flare ever measured. 

A powerful X-class flare like the one seen on New Year's Eve has the potential for long-lasting radiation storms, which can damage satellites, including GPS, and affect aircraft flying near the poles of Earth, even giving passengers on these flights small radiation doses. X flares also have the potential to cause worldwide blackouts, if conditions were just right.

The Hill:

In an update Sunday evening, NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) released an image of the flare, which appeared as a large, glowing spot on the sun. You can see that image below. 

Image reproduced from Original caption: An X5 solar flare detected by NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center on December 31, 2023. (NOAA SWPC; cropped)

At an X5, Sunday’s flare was much smaller than the flare recorded in 2003. It was, however, the strongest since September 2017, when an X8.2 flare was detected, according to the SWPC. This flare also supersedes an X2.8 solar flare reported in the same region of the sun on December 14. At the time, the SWPC reported that flare was “likely one of the largest solar radio events ever recorded.”

Possible effects:

The SWPC said those using high-frequency radio signals (like emergency managers) may notice a “temporary degradation or complete loss of signal on much of the sunlit side of Earth” as a result of Sunday’s solar flare.

Previously on this blog:


Wednesday, January 3, 2024

New ultra-short period binary discovered


Binary evolution theory predicts that the second common envelope (CE) ejection can produce low-mass (0.32-0.36 Msun) subdwarf B (sdB) stars inside ultrashort-orbital-period binary systems, as their helium cores are ignited under nondegenerate conditions.

Here we report the discovery of a 20.5-minute-orbital-period ellipsoidal binary, TMTS J052610.43+593445.1, in which the visible star is being tidally deformed by an invisible carbon-oxygen white dwarf (WD) companion.

The orbital periods of such detached sdB binary systems can be as short as 20 minutes. However, to date only four binaries of this type with orbital periods below one hour have been found.

Now, a team of astronomers led by Jie Lin of the Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, reports the detection of a new sdB binary with an extremely short orbital period...they discovered a dozen such objects, and one of them, which received designation TMTS J052610.43+593445.1 (or J0526 for short) turned out to be an sdB binary with an orbital period of approximately 20.5 minutes.

BNN Breaking:

The white dwarf, although ten times smaller than the sun, has a mass of 0.735 solar masses and an effective temperature of 25,400 K. This binary system presents astronomers with a unique opportunity to study the physics and evolution of stars under extreme conditions.

In about 1.5 million years, the subdwarf will begin transferring mass to the white dwarf at an even shorter orbital period, leading to the formation of an AM CVn star through the helium-star channel. This process is pivotal for understanding binary evolution from the second common envelope ejection to the formation of AM CVn stars. The discovery of TMTS J052610.43+593445.1 could play a significant role in investigating these binary evolution paths.


Previously on this blog:

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

JWST Reveals a Surprisingly High Fraction of Galaxies Being Spiral-like


In this letter, we used James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) images from the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science Survey to visually identify spiral galaxies with redshift 0.5≤z≤4 and stellar mass ≥1010M⊙. Out of 873 galaxies, 216 were found to have a spiral structure.

These fractions are higher than the fractions observed with the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). We even detect possible spiral-like features at redshifts z>3.

This fraction is surprisingly high and implies that the formation of spiral arms, as well as disks, was earlier in the universe.

Of these galaxies, 216 were classified as spirals. The authors were careful to note that some may be merging galaxies that were misclassified, but even then 108 of the galaxies were unanimously classified as spirals by evaluators. When the team arranged them by redshift, they found that while the fraction of spirals decreased as you went further into the past, the fraction of spirals at redshifts above z = 3 was much higher than expected. When the team calibrated observations, they found about a fifth of galaxies at z = 3 are spiral galaxies. These very early galaxies would have had to become spirals less than two billion years after the Big Bang, meaning that there would have been little time for mergers and collisions to be the cause.

If spiral galaxies were more common in the early universe than expected, it could indicate that certain conditions or mechanisms favored the formation of spiral structures at that time. This is quite at odds with the current understanding of what structures were favored during these early epochs of the Universe's development.

Previously on this blog:

How many planets could be in the Kuiper Belt?


Motivated by recent measurements of the free-floating-planet mass function at terrestrial masses, we consider the possibility that the solar system may have captured a terrestrial planet early in its history. We show that ∼1.2 captured free-floating planets with mass strictly greater than that of Mars may exist in the outer solar system, with a median predicted distance of ∼1400 au.

To evaluate the expected mass of the most massive captured free-floating planet as a function of the maximum semimajor axis, given the arguments presented in Section 2, we implement a Monte Carlo simulation.

This is an interesting calculation, but the result of ~1 free-floating planet does not have a reported error and seems extremely sensitive to the mass function. Equation 1 gives the mass function of free-forming planets:

The coefficient on the power-law term has substantial errorbars, changing the result of the mass function by up to 75% if alpha ~ 1. Examining alpha as well, the paper reports that alpha ~ 0.96 \pm 0.47, which would have a substantial effect on the value of the mass function. It wasn't immediately clear how this substantial variation affected the number of planets detected. Figure 1 shows the confidence intervals on the mass estimate for a planet of abundance unity, but I wasn't able to immediately grasp how to convert this into an errorbar on the planet abundance estimate. Then Figure 2 shows the cumulative fraction and expected number of captured free-floating planets, but doesn't show the confidence intervals. So overall, it's hard to assess the free-floating planet abundance estimate from their simulations given the huge spread on the parameters. The estimate changes from ~1 to ~3 with a change of binning, which is expected but also highlights how uncertain the estimate and approach are, so it would been interesting to see a more thorough exploration of this.

A recent study published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters investigates the potential existence of Mars-sized free-floating planets (FFPs)—also known as rogue planets, starless planets, and wandering planets—that could have been captured by our sun's gravity long ago and orbit in the outer solar system approximately 1,400 astronomical units (AU) from the sun.

Scientists currently hypothesize that rogue planets are formed from two scenarios: As part of their own solar system but are then somehow ejected into the cosmos, or they form in isolation. But what is the significance of studying free-floating planets, overall?

After conducting approximately 100,000,000 simulations, the results indicate the potential for the existence of a Mars-sized, or even a Mercury-sized planetary body somewhere in the outer solar system approximately 1,400 AU from the Sun.

Universe Today:

Siraj recommends in his study that future work could include gaining greater understanding of how rogue planets are captured in the first place, along with investigating observational tests to identify where to look in the sky for rogue planets, as well. He also notes how microlensing has become the preferred method in identifying rogue planets based on past studies.

Rogue planet capture is extremely interesting for sure. I'm also super interested in the related phenomenon of JuMBOs (Jupiter-Mass Binary Objects), which are forcing astrophysicists to confront the same tough questions as this study.

Previously on this blog:

Thermal vacuum testing for the Europa Clipper

NASA (via YouTube ): We'll be back soon. The spacecraft is currently undergoing vacuum testing. I was a huge fan of the livestream for b...