The sun can be a pretty dangerous neighbor to have. Sure, it gives us warmth and makes life possible on Earth and all that jazz, but it also can be a pain in the ass. Every so often, destabilizations in the magnetic fields or other random fluctuations can cause the turbulent star to eject a whole bunch of radioactive material out into space – a solar flare.
Most solar flares are harmless. After all, the odds of the sun belching out a bunch of particles directly at Earth is pretty slim. But every now and then it does happen, and the chances of it happening more often are increasing by the month. That’s because the sun is going into the highly active phase of its regular decade-long cycle of activity.
Besides giving us the stunning Northern Lights, the charged particles emitted by solar flares can wreak havoc on electrical systems. It can shut down satellites, damage electrical systems on Earth, and post health and safety risks to any astronauts who might be in orbit at the time.
But those are just the baby ones.
A behemoth of a solar flare directed at Earth could cause unimaginable damage. It wouldn’t just shut down electronics for a bit. It could potentially destroy many electrical systems, especially those in orbit that don’t have the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field for protection.
The worst part is that solar flares are completely unpredictable. We have no idea when one might rear its ugly head. And when it does, the effects reach our planet in a matter of hours – not much time to take any possible precautions.
However, a group of nuclear physicists from Purdue University and the Ohio State University believe they may have discovered a way to give at least a day’s warning before a solar flare.
The early detection system comes thanks to the unshakably constant rate of nuclear decay in radioactive isotopes. Though some 300 isotopes are known to be stable, there are many more that aren’t. Due to their odd ratios of neutrons and protons, these nuclei give off energy in order to become more stable. This energy can be in the form of the nucleus ejecting protons, neutrons, gamma rays, x-rays, other types of rays or any combination thereof.
You know this better as radiation and the rate at which it happens is a very hard and fast number that can be measured extremely accurately.
However, Jere Jenkins – a nuclear engineer and director of radiation laboratories in the School of Nuclear Engineering at Purdue – noticed a slight fluctuation by chance one day in 2006. After watching coverage of astronauts spacewalking at the International Space Station who might have been in danger due to a solar flare at the time, Jenkins decided to check his equipment to see if the flare might have had some affect here on earth. Sure enough, it seemed as though the solar flare changed the decay rate of his radioactive sample about 39 hours before the start of the solar flare.
Excited by the potential discovery, Jenkins had colleagues run some tests on their own radioactive samples to see if the sun could indeed change their decay rates. Researchers Kevin Herminghuysen, Thomas Blue, Andrew Kauffman and Joseph Talnagi of Ohio State recorded weekly calibration data used for radiological safety at Ohio State’s research reactor. They discovered a clear annual variation in the decay rate of chlorine-36 over a period of six years. The findings agreed with data previously collected at the Brookhaven National Laboratory regarding the decay rate of chlorine-36; changes in the decay rate were found to match changes in the Earth-sun distance and Earth’s exposure to different parts of the sun itself.
Based on these observations, it did seem plausible that changes in the sun could cause changes in the decay rates of radioactive isotopes on Earth. Their theory is that the changes are caused by neutrinos – another byproduct of the nuclear reactions taking place within the sun that barely have any mass, travel at nearly the speed of light and barely interact with anything at all. Most pass straight through the Earth without ever leaving a clue of their existence.
But some don’t.
And it could be those few that interact with matter here on Earth that are affecting the decay rates.
At Purdue, those decay rates come from manganese-54. Since 2006, the Purdue team has carefully watched these rates during 10 different solar flares, and each seem to cause changes, which Jenkins originally noticed.
“Since neutrinos have essentially no mass or charge, the idea that they could be [affecting nuclear decay rates] is foreign to physics,” Jenkins said. “So, we are saying something that doesn’t interact with anything is changing something that can’t be changed. Either neutrinos are affecting decay rate or perhaps an unknown particle is.”
From here, further research is needed to confirm these findings and expand the work using more sensitive equipment. But if it pans out, Purdue has a patent application in the system in order to create an advanced solar flare warning system, which could prove to be invaluable.