The Solar Eclipse Gave Astronomers An Unprecedented Window Into What Drives Space Weather

The Sun is very active at the moment.

The GAVRT DSS-28 dish near Goldstone, California.
NASA/Russell Torres

As spectators snapped incredible images of Monday’s solar eclipse, the Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT) in California captured intimate details about the Sun’s volatility that astronomers would have normally missed.

The Sun is very active at the moment. The magnetic field lines that loop across the Sun’s surface sometimes cluster into dense regions. These magnetically dense spots are what astronomers think cause coronal mass ejections, which are sunbursts packed with charged particles that fly at speeds of up to thousands of kilometers per second.

There’s reason to be concerned about these. If they explode from the Sun in the direction of our planet — and we happen to be experiencing daytime when they strike half a day later — we’re at risk for higher ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure. A project known as Solar Patrol is using GAVRT to study how solar emissions can influence space weather, and this past Monday’s solar eclipse provided them with unusually precise data to work with, revealing solar flares in more detail than ever before.

Bringing a decommissioned telescope back to life

As a decommissioned deep space network telescope, GAVRT once listened to the myriad of spacecraft flying through space. It’s since retired from that service, but because the telescope detects magnetic fields (which are invisible to the naked eye), it became an ideal vehicle to study the Sun’s solar activity.

GAVRT wasn’t in the path of totality, but the partial eclipse that covered about half of the Sun from its location in the Mojave Desert was perfect for astronomers working on the GAVRT Solar Patrol program. As the Moon moved across the Sun, its sharp edge helped improve the angular resolution of the telescope by a factor of more than 100.

The fine details they pulled out thanks to the partial eclipse were a high-resolution, 3D view of the magnetic fields. During normal observations, astronomers cannot resolve what those magnetic fields look like.

In this 2010 image, NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory observes the Moon’s shadow transiting in front of the Sun.

Photo 12/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

“We’re suddenly able to not just see that there’s an active region there; we can resolve the features that are inside the active region,” Marin Anderson, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, tells Inverse. As part of Solar Patrol, she uses radio astronomy to extract new clues about the Sun, and how it triggers space weather. In addition to UV radiation on Earth, solar emissions can harm astronauts orbiting our atmosphere, disrupt satellites, and trigger auroras.

Thangasamy Velusamy, another GAVRT scientist, has already taken an initial look at the data. The final analysis and results of the partial eclipse will appear in a future research study, alongside GAVRT’s analysis of the Sun during the October 2023 annular, or “ring of fire,” eclipse across North America.

The gliding Moon was a gift to astronomers as they continue to map the Sun as it inches closer to its boiling point, or solar maximum, which is expected to happen in July 2025.

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