A Tale of Two Mysteries on shuttle Discovery
Updated: June 18th, 2018
Mystery the First: the Solar Constant
In the late 17th century there was a 70 year period called the Maunder Minimum when no sunspots were observed on the Sun. The normal 11-yr sunspot cycle essentially stopped, and solar activity was abnormally low. At the same time Northern Europe experienced the "Little Ice Age", a series of bitter winters lasting 50 years. There was another decrease in sunspot activity between 1800 and 1830. It wasn't as severe as the Maunder Minimum, but temperatures in Europe and America took another dip. The year 1816 is sometimes referred to as "The Year without a Summer" because of unusually cold weather. Many of the novels of Charles Dickens, which depict harsh winters in London, were set in this period.
Today, scientists are wondering if there is a connection. Does solar activity influence Earth's climate, and just how constant is the sun, anyway? Today the sun deposits 1370 Watts of power on every square meter of the Earth's upper atmosphere. That number is called the solar constant. Since the early 1980's orbiting spacecraft have been keeping an eye on the Sun to monitor possible changes the solar constant. The Solar Maximum Mission, which flew from 1980 until 1989 established that the sun's radiance does fluctuate by a small amount. "It [the solar radiance] is 0.1% less during the sunspot minimum than during solar maximum", according to Dr. David Hathaway, a solar physicist at the NASA MSFC Space Sciences Lab. "These small changes are probably not enough to affect climate here on Earth, but what we really want to know is this: are there larger changes that take place on time scales of 100 years or more? If there are, then there could be a connection between the Sun and the Little Ice Age. Right now we just don't know."
Our Sun has spots! These spots appear dark in photographs like the one above, but in fact sunspots are quite bright - they are just dark compared to the rest of the Sun. Although sunspots are cooler than the rest of the sun, the sun is generally hotter when there are many sunspots. The Solar Maximum Mission found that solar radiance increased by 0.1% at the maximum of the sunspot cycle. Scientists are predicting that the next solar maximum will occur in the year 2000.
Mystery the Second: the Solar Corona
Right, above: The free-flying SPARTAN satellite trailing Discovery earlier this week.
"It should be possible to heat the corona with waves," says Dr. John Davis at the NASA/MSFC Space Sciences Lab. "All kinds of waves are generated in the photosphere - such as acoustic waves, from mechanical motions, or Alfven waves, from shaking magnetic fields. These waves spread upward into the corona which absorbs energy from the waves.
"The trouble with this idea is that none of the waves likes to be absorbed by the corona. They either go right through, or are reflected back to their starting point. This is a long-standing problem and nobody has a good solution for it.
Alternatively, scientists from Marshall have suggested that energy is pumped into the corona through a series of little explosive effects - microflares - that occur all over the place."
There are lots of theories, but no one knows the answer. The corona is hard to study from Earth because its light is relatively dim compared to the blindingly bright disk of the sun. The white light corona can be viewed from Earth only during a solar eclipse or with a special instrument called a coronagraph. Ground-based astronomers are never able to see the corona's ultraviolet radiation because Earth's atmosphere blocks UV rays.
SPARTAN is equipped with two telescopes that can measure both white light and UV emissions from the sun's corona.
The white light coronagraph, developed by the High-Altitude Observatory in Boulder, Colo., will measure the density of the electrons in the coronal white light. The ultraviolet coronal spectrometer from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory at Harvard will measure the velocities, temperatures, and densities of the coronal gases.
By comparing the data collected by the two telescopes and combining the observations of the SPARTAN 201 missions and Ulysses and observations made by ground-based instruments, scientists expect to gain a much more complete picture of the solar corona and some insight into what might be heating it.
SPARTAN 201-05 observations this week were coordinated with observations made from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) satellite. The second and third missions were coordinated with the passage of the Ulysses spacecraft over the sun's south and north poles.
return to NASA Science News Home
Author: Dr. Tony Phillips
Production Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips
Curator: Bryan Walls
Responsible NASA official: Ron Koczor