This Week in Space 115 Transcript

Please be advised this transcript is AI-generated and may not be word for word. Time codes refer to the approximate times in the ad-supported version of the show.

0:00:00 - Rod Pyle
On this episode of this Week in Space, we're talking about the sun. Yes, it's our friendly Mr Sun. Friend or foe, stay with us.

0:00:12 - VO
Podcasts you love. From people you trust. This. Is TWiT.

0:00:22 - Rod Pyle
This is this Week in Space, episode number 115, recorded on June 14th 2024. Our Friendly Mr. Sun. Hello and welcome to another episode of this Week in Space, the Our Friendly Mr Sun edition, where we discover if our nearest star is friend or foe, or a little bit of both. I'm Rod Pyle, Editor-in-Chief Bad Aster Magazine, and I'm here, as always, with my dear friend Tariq Malik, the imperceptible editor-in-chief of

0:00:49 - Tariq Malik
Hello, here comes the sun. Doodoo Right, I'm doing well.

0:00:52 - Rod Pyle
Oh, you're going to do it.

0:00:53 - Tariq Malik
Go ahead, what, what? You want me to sing? This song You're going to sing here comes the sun, doodoo.

0:00:57 - Rod Pyle
Okay, that's enough. We'll be joined in a few minutes, as soon as we get away from that, by Dr Alex Young, who is the Associate Director for Science in the Heliophysics Science Division at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. And yes, that's just as hard as it sounds, so that's going to be a good time. Before we start, however, as always, I need to remind you all to do us a solid. Make sure to like, subscribe and do the other podcast goodies for us so that we can get good numbers and bring you even better advertisers. And now a space joke from ready, jim, I think it's Heitken. Hey, tarek, yes, rod. Why did Neil Armstrong have trouble concentrating on landing the limb during Apollo 11? Why, I don't know.

0:01:48 - Tariq Malik
He kept hearing a buzz in his ears.

0:01:51 - Rod Pyle
Okay, wait a minute. Wait a minute.

0:01:52 - Tariq Malik
No, I like it.

0:01:56 - Rod Pyle
I like it. Wait a minute, I got more. Okay, okay. Why does some scientist like to study the sun? Why they have a flair for research.

0:02:02 - Tariq Malik
Oh, I see what you did there.

0:02:03 - Rod Pyle
Four Last one. What can we deduce from the fact that the sun is the third? That good one rod. What can we deduce from the fact that the earth is the third planet from the sun? What all earthly problems are? Third world problems?

0:02:20 - Tariq Malik
oh, oh very poignant.

0:02:22 - Rod Pyle
Very well, no sound effects today, okay. Well, save the cosmos from our humor or my humor, because the last the sun jokes were me. I have to take the blame for those and send us your best, worst or most indifferent space jokes at All right, let's get to some sexy headlines. Yes, so I like. I like the title of the first one you gave us. This is only a test. So shades of orson welles at nasa due to a hot mic or a hot sound input?

0:02:53 - Tariq Malik
huh oh my gosh, yeah, so this happened on, uh, on wednesday night, actually of this week, and I just got out of my taekwondo class and then my phone starts ringing because people are like all right, you got to, you got to get on this. There's this emergency on the space station. They're talking about an astronaut in distress and that prognosis Depressurization, yeah, and suffering from depressurization sickness the prognosis doesn't sound good and they're talking about splashdown. And I'm like you're joking, right? And and Robert Robert Perlman and I were talking about it. He called me and he's like no, no, I'm not joking, it's just it's going on right now.

And what happened? What happened and this is this is crazy is that NASA and I believe it's their partners at SpaceX and the International Space Station Program were having a, a simulation of a medical emergency to, just as they do, because this is NASA they simulate every type of scenario that can happen and then get ready for it. Uh, and know what, what, where, where are the challenges? How do they, how do they, you know, fix this or not? And and for eight minutes, that simulation somehow got mistakenly broadcast through the NASA live space station channels. And and it was one side of a conversation it was a flight engineer, or probably a flight surgeon, apparently stuck in Los Angeles traffic driving to MCC X, which I believe is SpaceX's mission control during, you know, joined dragon ISS operations, asking a lot of questions about the status of the astronaut. Uh, that she, uh, she called them the commander, the person's never named and we only hear her side of the conversation. Uh, but it sounded horrible, like a nightmare scenario. Uh, the you know that she was asking what, what his pulse was. Is he breathing? Uh, get, get the oxygen on and put him back in the space suit until you can get them back on earth to get this, this pure o2 stuff. Uh, and then they that she had, you know, given numbers for a hospital in spain that could get them into a hyperbaric chamber, uh, as soon as they splash down or as soon as they get recovered. So, uh, and again, it only lasted eight minutes and, uh, and it took about an hour, maybe a little more than an hour, for for NASA to put out a tweet on X to say you know, it was only a test, it was a simulation, just kidding. Yeah, sorry about it, but that's enough time for the Internet age media to like, pick it up and then just like go bananas because no one knew what was going on.

Right, and, in fact, the crew on the space station. There's nine people up there two Boeing Starliner astronauts with NASA and the seven-person crew of Expedition 71. They were sleeping the whole time. They weren't even involved in the test, and so NASA was really stressing that everything was fine and their plans for a spacewalk, which is why this caught a lot of attention. There's plans for a spacewalk the next day on the space station and they're talking about an astronaut in a space suit. Uh, that that was going to go a fine, but I think we're going to talk a little bit more about that, uh, in our next story. Well, why don't you just segue into it? Well, and that, yeah, that. So so the the TL voices that this was a test. I think it gave us a lot of really good insight into how NASA maps out and practices these horrible scenarios that they have to be ready for so that they know what to do. But all the astronauts were fine and, in fact, elon Musk and SpaceX both tweeted out that their people are also fine. So no one in danger, just a big scenario, a big drill, medical drill. So that's great.

However, I mentioned that NASA said that the astronauts were sleeping and getting ready for the spacewalk. That was supposed to happen the next day after this issue and before they even started, about an hour before, nasa astronauts Matthew Dominick and Tracy Caldwell Dyson were supposed to spend about six and a half hours outside retrieving a broken electronics box, uh, investigating. Um, uh, I think they're gonna take microbial swabs off the exterior of the station for delivery back to earth to look at extremophiles. They were an hour before starting that. Uh, when nasa announced they had completely canceled the spacewalk, which is really weird because we just got off this fake emergency and now there's this other apparent issue that that forced them to cancel the spacewalk and they don't cancel spacewalks for no good reason and after a little bit of waiting and asking NASA, like what's going on, they put out a very short statement that said it was because of spacesuit discomfort.

And then that was it, and it's really, really strange because we don't know what that spacesuit discomfort was. Uh, they weren't like getting ready to go outside. I don't believe they were depressurizing the air locker or anything like that. Um, I did hear a call, or I thought I heard a call. So I could have not, um, be remembering it or I could have misheard it, but I could have swore I heard mission control ask one of the astronauts, matthew dominic, to uh, look at a, uh, a helmet for damage. But I I can't. I can't really verify that because I couldn't find it again when I was trying to find it very difficult to go back in that that, uh, that live stream, to try to find that exact moment after you hear it and uh and so. So I'm not sure what that means. We don't know what discomfort means. Was something poking the astronauts and they can't fix it? Did the spacesuit break? Did something else happen? We don't know, and, and so NASA is not really elaborating.

0:08:19 - Rod Pyle
So was it possibly so? We had the problem before of the fact that they've only got a handful of working spacesuits left from these. That's right, the suite that they made in the 1980s. Is it possible? Part of it was either whatever they were about to wear was too small or too large, or they've also got those cinching cords they use to pull them tight.

0:08:44 - Tariq Malik
It sounds like it could be anything. It could be something inside the suit that's poking the astronaut, and you know it's uncomfortable now and they haven't spent hours upon hours, upon hours, you know, flexing against the rigidity of the suit outside in the vacuum of space. So they'll have to figure a lot of that out. I would suspect that if it was a sizing issue, that would have come out relatively quickly. Oh, now we have to wait.

But this was the first of three planned spacewalks outside the space station, some of them to do maintenance, some of them to do repairs. One of them to go and check out the alpha magnetic spectrometer, that a billion plus dollar instrument on the space station, to get ready, get it ready for some upgrades, to see how it will be like for astronauts to work in that area. And it's their stall. They can't. They haven't gotten that series of spacewalks started. We don't know when they're going to do it. They might put out an update today with a new schedule and everyone wants to know, because NASA extended the stay of the Boeing Starliner at the station to get this spacewalk started and then they actually had delayed their return to Earth to the 18th. Now they've delayed as of this morning and recording of this episode. They've delayed the landing of the Boeing Starliner to June 22nd, so another four days up there.

0:10:03 - Rod Pyle
Which is pretty brave for a spacecraft that's leaking helium every hour. Right.

0:10:07 - Tariq Malik
They say they've got a lot. They shut those, those manifolds down so they shouldn't be leaking. There shouldn't be anything going going into it. Um, or at least it shouldn't be leaking as much, because they did detect a fifth helium leak.

0:10:19 - Rod Pyle
This but they said they still had 10 times more than they needed.

0:10:23 - Tariq Malik
So exactly, but they said they still had 10 times more than they needed Exactly.

0:10:25 - Rod Pyle
Hopefully, that's that'll say that way, all right.

0:10:26 - Tariq Malik
There's a lot of. There's a lot of missing moving pieces for the spacewalk and the return to Earth.

0:10:31 - Rod Pyle
For that, so, speaking of moving pieces, can you give us a quick rundown on what's changed with Voyager one status?

0:10:37 - Tariq Malik
This is very exciting and this comes out of, this comes out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory this week Actually, it came out just the day before we recorded this. But you know, when we last talked about the Voyager spacecraft and in fact we had, you know, a senior scientist come and just give us the whole skinny about it they had resurrected a signal from the spacecraft, they'd restored contact to it and, hooray right, hooray for NASA. They dare mighty things. Jpl got the job done.

Well, as of this week, voyager one is sending data back from all four of its working instruments right now. That means it's working, it's alive, a billion plus miles away from earth, or whatever. It is 11 billion, so many billions, lots of billions, uh, and, and, and it is of billions. And it's not just sending beeps, it's not sending gibberish, it's actually sending science data. They're back at it and they're really exciting. This is an amazing turnaround for a near 47-year-old spacecraft outside the bounds of our solar system, and I just thought it would be worth celebrating because, yeah, you know, uh, you know, I hope I'm as good, uh, when I've traveled however many billion miles, 15 billion miles, yeah, 15.1 billion miles, and the answer is no, you won't be.

0:11:59 - Rod Pyle
I already am not all right. Before we we roll into our our first break here, I just want to say a public goodbye to Bill Anders, astronaut from Apollo 8. That's right who left us last week. Unfortunately he was flying. I think he was doing an aerobatic move in his private plane but whatever happened, he ended up crashing and we lost him. And he ended up crashing and we lost him. And Bill was. I only met him once at an air show but we had a short chat and he gave me a very humorous accounting of who took the Earthrise picture and how and all that kind of thing. But he was just a delightful guy, Great sense of humor, like so many of those guys from that that the space age astronauts, just a real gentleman from a classic mold and uh, he will be missed.

0:12:52 - Tariq Malik
He was 89 88, 89, 90 he was 90 on june 7, 90, okay, so so, and you, just just as a reminder, you know you're talking about apollo 8. Uh, he's credited for that earthrise photo, like the iconic photo of the earth rising over the moon. That put us all in our place.

0:13:07 - Rod Pyle
And he didn't make a big deal about, about who shot it. It was just more of the the scramble, as as we saw in the the Tom Hanks and the earth the moon series about. Wait, wait, give me that camera over there. No, hold on, guys, there's time. No, a good story? All right, we'll be right back with uh, dr alex young in just a few moments. Stay with us. Hello, alex, and welcome to the show.

Thanks for coming today thanks, I'm excited to be here I'm excited to have you here because I want to learn something about heliophysics, about which, let's see, what do I know about the sun?

0:13:40 - Tariq Malik
it gave me cataracts because I had cheap solar telescope as a kid, because he looked at the sun. Do a telescope?

0:13:47 - Rod Pyle
alex, you're. You're younger than me, but when I was little I was born in the 50s, late 50s I had one of these little tasco two-inch telescopes. The eyepiece had a little piece of welding glass you screwed in the back, yeah, which of course, if it cracked it was a very bad day. Mine didn't crack, but I didn't know. You weren't supposed to look through it for an hour. So by the time I was in my forties everything was looking kind of gray and washed out. So that's what I learned about solar astronomy, which is not not the good stuff to learn. But what I'd like to know now is what you do and a little bit about what heliophysics is.

0:14:19 - Dr. Alex Young
Okay, well, it's a pretty exciting time right now for the sun and for heliophysics. Exciting time right now for the sun and for heliophysics. So heliophysics the name helio, the Greek for the sun means physics of the sun and its influence on everything in the solar system, and that's actually really broad. It goes from the very top of the atmosphere and how that part of the atmosphere connects with the lower atmosphere, the areas that we live, and then from there you go outward, and the interaction of the sun and all of the energy and material that it spits out, and how that interacts with everything in the solar system, from the planets to the comets, asteroids and even the people and spacecraft that we put into space as part of that interaction so you work at the at nasa's goddard field center god, yeah, goddard space flight center right outside of washington dc in greenbelt, maryland okay, and you're the big solar physics kahuna there, right.

Well, I definitely not the big one, but cause there's lots of us. But uh, you know I'm one of one of many.

0:15:35 - Rod Pyle
How did you? How does one get a job like that? How does one prepare and work into that environment?

0:15:41 - Dr. Alex Young
Well, typically, if you're interested in from the science point of view, from the physics point of view, then you would probably get an undergraduate degree in physics or astronomy and then go on and do a master's and a PhD orysics and then I switched into looking at the sun. But you could also do it by engineering. You know, if you wanted to build instruments, if you wanted to build spacecraft, you could be doing that for the field of heliophysics as well as some of the other fields that overlap with it, well as some of the other fields that overlap with it. So typically, basically, you know science and engineering. Physics and engineering are the two main avenues to getting into it.

0:16:32 - Rod Pyle
So I don't want to hog the show here. I know Tara's got a whole bunch of questions for you and one of them, I hope, is most of us think of the sun as being this big inert object that's just always there. It comes up in the morning, it sets in the evening, that there are sunspots and solar cycles, but I don't think most of us really understand how much is going on up there, which is what you do. But I have to ask before we get there. I saw that you were on the board of advisors for the Museum of Science Fiction. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

0:17:06 - Dr. Alex Young
Yeah, I, you know, back several years ago I was on the board and worked in that area for a while. So the museum which I think basically is always staged, sort of virtual, was intended to bring science fiction to people and also to make connections between science fiction and science fact, which is certainly the case for a lot of different aspects of science fiction, and so it was a position where I could provide input. We did some outreach events together and it was really definitely a cool experience and got to meet a lot of really cool people in science fiction, both film, tv as well as, you know, a lot of really famous writers and also went to a lot of workshops with writers and producers to be a subject matter expert in the science for them in the various things that they were working on.

0:18:05 - Rod Pyle
And then you could slowly go insane when they disregard what you tell them. Why can't we fly through the sun? Okay, I'm done, tarek, sorry.

0:18:15 - Tariq Malik
I had one more about you, Alex, just because I usually ask everyone that comes on. You said that you were studying something different in the space field before switching to where you are now. But how did you get involved in space at all? Were you like a big space fan as a kid?

0:18:31 - Dr. Alex Young
Well, yeah, I mean I've always been interested in space. I mean as a kid I had a telescope, spent a lot of time going to the planetarium, saw partial eclipse when I was in elementary, middle school Also, the Voyager spacecraft were reaching the outer planets, sending back these amazing images. The space shuttle program had just started, and now I wasn't old enough to see the original Star Trek when it was first broadcast, but I saw it in syndication and the first Star Trek was also part of it, and so that's what really got me into space, astrophysics and even science fiction and connecting the two.

0:19:27 - Rod Pyle
So you were one of the ones that understood. I guess why, when the Enterprise flies around, the sun time goes backwards. Right yeah, couldn't quite figure that one out.

0:19:37 - Dr. Alex Young
Yeah, I'd like to be able to figure out how to do that. That would be kind of cool. That would be cool.

0:19:41 - Rod Pyle
Or Superman, that's right. Yeah, yeah, that's right Didn't even get singed, Did I see? By the way, this is my last tangential question, but I was looking at your LinkedIn. Was that a picture of you in Antarctica or just somewhere else cold?

0:19:57 - Dr. Alex Young
was that a picture of you in antarctica or just somewhere else cold? Yes, that was probably one in antarctica. I went to, uh, december 2021. There was a total solar eclipse that was visible in antarctica and I went down on a ship to see it. Unfortunately, it was cloudy. Oh no, I experienced the eclipse itself, which was amazing. It got pitch black, the, the seabirds were totally freaking out. And then just getting a chance to step foot on Antarctica and see penguins and whales, that was an amazing opportunity.

0:20:27 - Tariq Malik
Great. Well, you mentioned you kind of teased it, alex, at the beginning, but you said this is a very exciting time to be into the sun. And that's kind of my first question, because that's why we wanted you to on the show, because it seems like it's been a really exciting few weeks, few months, maybe a few years, right, and I was curious if you could tell us why is it so exciting to you right now?

0:20:52 - Dr. Alex Young
Yeah, so it has been amazing. I mean, I'm sure a lot of people I've actually talked to people at meetings and some outreach to find out you know, did some of the aurora, the farthest south that's ever been recorded and that event may be a hundred year or even possibly a 500 year event. Oh, and that is all part of why things are exciting right now, because the sun has a cycle of activity that goes from low, high, back down to low over 11 years, and right now we are nearing, or possibly already at, the peak of that activity, meaning that we have large number of sunspots, which is one of the areas where a lot of these eruptions and huge blasts of light called a solar flare come from. And the sun is just, it's, it's turning lots of energy, those magnetic fields are built up inside of it and over this next year or so it's going to be spitting out a lot more of this energy and material and we're going to see more of these solar storms, we're going to see more Aurora and it's going to be a pretty exciting opportunity. It's also perhaps going to be interesting in the sense that sometimes we get the aurora but we also can get disturbances in our technology and the technology.

Some of the technology that we have today we didn't have 11 years ago.

So one of the areas that's important about studying all this activity from the sun and we call it space weather it does create its own environment in space, much like the weather here on Earth, and it has an impact on our technology, because a lot of this stuff coming off the sun is electrical, it's electromagnetic in nature, and so it's interacting with electronics. There are some things that we have seen in the past, like disruptions of communications, damages to satellites, potentially hazardous radiation for astronauts and even power grid outages. So those are things that we're familiar with from previous solar cycles. However, there's technology now that we didn't have 11 years ago and we may learn some new things. We may see some new responses to this that we didn't expect. So that's going to be a learning experience. It's going to be exciting, and the sun's been doing this for billions of years and we've only been monitoring it for about 400. So every solar cycle is a new opportunity to learn a little bit more about the way things, the way the sun does things.

0:23:56 - Rod Pyle
Well, this is. This is interesting, and I've got a great question coming up and I'll get to that right after the short break Stand by. So I just have to ask, just so we have a baseline for comparison can you tell us about the Carrington event, Because that sounds like that was a pretty exciting couple of days? It was 1859, I think.

0:24:15 - Dr. Alex Young
Yes, 1859. So it was the very end of August, 1st of days. It was 1859, I think, yes, 1859. So it was the very end of August, 1st of September.

The gentleman named Richard Carrington is a British astronomer, was observing the sun with a telescope. He did have somewhat protective eyewear he didn't have the same kind of protection we have today but he was looking at the sun invisible light and he saw the sunspot get blurry all of a sudden and what that meant was there was a flare, there was an intense increase in light. When you see large changes in the visible light, which is what he saw, that's actually indicative of a very large event, because it doesn't happen very often. But what we also saw is not too long after that, he and other scientists around the world noticed all kinds of things happening Aurora, they noticed changes in the Earth's magnetic field. Some of the magnetometers that measure that were off the scale. Also, we didn't have the power grid system, but we had the telegraph system and telegraphs were running without being connected to their power source. They were running off of the electricity created by the solar storms.

And what we know today is that this was a perfect storm. There was a huge eruption of material, a big blob of solar stuff we call it a coronal mass ejection that cleared the way in the solar system and then another big one came after that and that impacted the Earth, creating an incredibly powerful geomagnetic storm, a massive disturbance in the Earth's magnetic field. It sort of rung it like a big bell that created Aurora. That was so powerful. It was seen very far south, actually, much like the event we saw a couple of weeks ago, but there are stories that it was so bright in the middle of the night that people woke up thinking it was dawn. There were some telegraph operators who were electrocuted. I don't believe any of them died, but there was a fire created because they had paper tape that that was used in the telegraph office and the paper tape caught on fire and burned down some of the telegraph offices. So it was just a really huge storm.

We don't know exactly how big it was because of course, we didn't have spacecraft measuring, but we can do a lot of things using paleo information, you know, data from ice cores and things of that nature, and even looking at how far south the aurora was and how strong the magnetic field was changing, and we do believe that it is the strongest storm for at least several centuries. It may have. It certainly had a very large coronal mass ejections, had a very large solar flare, which is this big blast of just light, and both the solar flare and the coronal mass ejection create these massive shock waves, you know, like a, like a sonic boom. It's sort of like a snowplow going through the solar system, and they accelerate particles, uh, ions, electrons, protons. They accelerate them to near the speed of light, creating this shower of high energy radiation, um, which is exactly what we are concerned about, for example, with astronauts, and so it's considered kind of the standard candle for, you know, a super storm.

0:28:10 - Tariq Malik
Well, I wanted to ask a little bit about the different things to look for in these events. Well, first of all, you mentioned that the the solar cycle is 11 years long and they're they have names right we are in solar cycle, it's 25 correct yeah so and is that? So what is that? 25 times 11? I don't know the math rod. Do you know it what that's? So that's, that's over, uh, uh, like a couple hundred years, then, that we've been following it.

0:28:37 - Dr. Alex Young
Yeah, we've actually been counting sunspots for about 400 years. We have data farther back than solar cycle number one, but as soon as we felt the data was robust enough, then we started actually numbering these cycles. You know one, two and so on.

0:29:00 - Tariq Malik
And do you know why it's 11 years? I mean, the seasons on Earth are a year long, right? Well?

0:29:06 - Dr. Alex Young
it's? That's actually a really big question that we don't know the answer to. We know that there is a. Well, we believe, based on our understanding of, for example, the Earth's magnetic field as well as other stars. That is, when you heat up a gas so much that the atoms break apart into electrons and then the nucleus of the atom, so that gives them the electrical property. So if you have a conductor and it's liquid or a plasma, when it's rotating it has what's called differential rotation and it's actually something you see on Jupiter and Saturn.

The equator rotates faster than as you move towards the poles. It rotates slower and there's magnetic fields inside the star, inside the sun and also inside the liquid core of the Earth, the sun, and also inside the liquid core of the earth. And because these are conductors, moving, they drag the magnetic field and so they're dragging it much more and faster near the equator than they are at the poles. And so when the solar cycle is at the minimum, the magnetic field is very relatively uniform, going from north to south, and then over the 11 years it starts twisting it up and that eventually causes the magnetic fields to pop out the surface. They float to the surface and gives us sunspots, but why is it 11 years?

We don't know. We really don't know. We have computer models, we have some physics that allows us to recreate a dynamo, but we can't make it. Even given the various properties we know of the sun, we can't actually make it exactly 11 years or, and in fact it's actually sometimes a little bit longer, like 11 and a half, and sometimes a little bit shorter. So that's, you know of the many ones. That's like one of the $64,000 questions.

0:31:28 - Tariq Malik
Do you ever like just go outside and shout at the sun? Why?

0:31:33 - Dr. Alex Young
Why, why?

0:31:34 - Tariq Malik
Why, well, I do.

0:31:40 - Dr. Alex Young
Tariq, you're projecting again, you know one of the things thinking saying about. You know, speaking of going out and looking at the sun. Obviously, we've always been told we shouldn't look at it. Uh, and we do know what happens if you do now, talking about it earlier. But if you use your eclipse glasses, or we call those safe solar viewing glasses, you can wear those, go outside when the sun is out and it's nice and clear and you can look at the sun. And during high activity, like around now, you will see sunspots. They get so big, many times the size of Earth, that we can see them with our own eyes from the Earth's surface, which I find just amazing that you can do that.

0:32:29 - Tariq Malik
And I do encourage anyone, if you've got glasses, to go ahead and try and do that. It is really fun to see, uh, that kind of stuff and I did want to ask them, you know. So we talk about sunspots and those are created by the magnetic field poking up and those are cooler spots on the surface of the sun. That's why they're dark, but they're still super hot yes, exactly yeah and and and.

Then you talked about flares and coronal mass ejections, and and, then radiation, and those seem like three different kinds of storms from the sun. I mean, is that the? What are the different types of weather that we see from the sun?

0:33:05 - Dr. Alex Young
absolutely. There are different types of weather. I mean you could maybe think of, you know, just like we have, uh, different scales of weather. We have thunderstorms, we have tornadoes, we have hurricanes, so they're all related. And, for example, a lot of times you can have smaller flares that don't have a coronal mass ejection associated with it. You can have coronal mass ejections that come from eruptions of what's called a prominence or filament. They're the same thing. If you look at a prominence is when you look at this structure it's usually pinkish, red on the edge of the sun. If you look at it over the disk of the sun, it's called a filament.

We used to not know that they were the same thing, but now we do know that those can erupt on their own and they don't necessarily create a flare, but they can give it, give you a CME. Both flares and CMEs separately can cause the particle storm. So they're all related to each other. They're all a form of the release of magnetic energy. So that you know, in that sense they all kind of come from a very similar origin. What we do find is when the flares are larger, as they get larger, that correlation between flares and CMEs becomes stronger and stronger. That is, if there's a big flare, there's a good chance not always, but there's a really good chance it's going to be a big CME and that both of those mean there's a possibly good chance that we might see one of these particle storms.

0:34:44 - Rod Pyle
So you mentioned some of the risks associated with this and I'm interested in talking more about the power grid and so forth. But one of the things I remember during the Apollo program was, you know, they didn't know nearly as much about the sun as you do now, but they tried very hard to make sure that these guys didn't launch during a time when there was likely to be some kind of big radiation spike in the sun. And I've always been a little I think you sort of touched on it, but I've always been a little confused about the transit times of coronal mass ejections versus flares. So one's effectively light radiation, em, and the other one is a particle event and it takes like nine minutes or so.

0:35:28 - Dr. Alex Young
Yeah, so we actually have three different time scales here. So we do have the flare, as you mentioned, which is light, and that takes eight minutes, eight minutes. The coronal mass ejection is much slower. It's going at a measly couple million miles an hour, which sounds really fast, but compared to light it's not, and so that's going to take anywhere from 16, 17 hours up to several days.

And there is a relationship between the faster, more powerful CMEs are the ones that get here early. For example, we mentioned the Carrington event. The estimates are that that CME got here in about 17 hours, so so that's a fast one. And then the particles are in between they. They can be very close, they can be very relativistic, meaning they're close to the speed of light, or they can also be slower ones. The, the ones that are closer to the speed of light, typically take something like 15 minutes, maybe 20 minutes, to get here. But those particle storms can also last for a long time. We've actually had one a couple of days ago that lasted for a long time, and you can see the effects of that at the poles of the Earth on communications.

0:36:49 - Rod Pyle
Wow, All right, we will be right back after this short break. Go nowhere. So just a quick follow-up on that and then I'll clear the decks for Tariq's next inquiry. In the future, when we have crews going for longer journeys, or even to the moon or, for instance, on the Lunar Gateway, once that's up and running, if we know one of these things is coming, they have to have some kind of a storm shelter to go hide in. Right For that amount?

0:37:18 - Dr. Alex Young
Yes, they, they do. And the the simplest way to make us a storm shelter is you just have as much stuff between you and the radiation. So again, and the easiest way to do it here on Earth is a concrete wall or lead bricks. But of course we can't take those up into space because they just have too much weight, too much mass. But they do take things like cushions and other things to put between them and the outside of the spacecraft, and then the spacecraft's wall itself is also helping, and that's sufficient to stop the particles for the most part.

0:38:04 - Tariq Malik
You mentioned the spacecraft that detect these things. I mean like weather forecasters, meteorologists on Earth. They have all these Earth-watching know geostationary orbit. They watch the parts of the Earth for like 24 hours a day. What do you use, as a sun scientist, to track the weather every day? In fact, your website is the Sun Today, so what are you looking at every day?

0:38:34 - Dr. Alex Young
Yeah, so there's a couple of things, so many of the science organizations like NASA, esa, the European Space Agency, jaxa, the Japanese Space Agency, so those agencies put up science satellites, science spacecraft, and there are many that are designed to study the sun Probably the most famous one would be the Solar Dynamics Observatory, or maybe SOHO.

And then there are spacecraft that monitor the Earth, to see the interaction or monitor the space in between or even other planets, but those are all designed specifically for science. There's another type of spacecraft that are called operational, and those are the ones that you were talking about for terrestrial weather geosynchronous spacecraft that are operated, for example, from the United States, by NOAA, and NOAA is a partner of NASA and NOAA is actually designated to be the official agency that reports space weather here at Earth. In fact, the Space Weather Prediction Center, which does this work, is part of the National Weather Service, so they used to not be, but now they've been combined and they use GOES spacecraft. So the GOES are some of the same ones that we use for weather. Satellites have both instruments looking back at earth to give us terrestrial weather and also instruments looking up at the sun to give us space weather.

0:40:20 - Tariq Malik
I've been doing this like 20 years and I've never heard that. Wow, I didn't know that.

0:40:25 - Dr. Alex Young
Well, we. So we have a a current set right now, goes-r, which provides there's an instrument package called SUVI that has several telescopes very similar to SDO. I typically look at them every day when I look at also SDO. But we will be launching a new GOES and it's the last in the GOES line. I'm not super familiar with all of the aspects of what's next, but the GOES line of spacecraft, which has been around for decades, is going to transition for space weather into what's called the space weather follow-on and also they'll be working with the Europeans who will be doing some that are going to be farther away from Earth. But those spacecraft the new one that's going to be launching, will also have some new instruments. It will have what's called a coronagraph, which is a very important instrument for studying coronal mass ejections.

Right now the main coronagraph is on the SOHO spacecraft and SOHO is very old now in spacecraft years. Soho was launched in 1995 and was designed to be, you know, as most missions are only around for several years, but it's just kept on going. But those coronagraphs are critical for, you know, for NOAA and also for NASA to monitor space weather. We have one coronagraph instrument left on the stereo spacecraft. There used to be two of them. We lost one of them when they went back behind the sun. We lost contact with one of the stereo spacecrafts, so now it's a mono spacecraft, not a stereo.

0:42:09 - Tariq Malik
You should explain what a coronagraph actually is. Right, it's an instrument that blocks the sun's light so that you can see the weather stuff around it. Is that right?

0:42:19 - Dr. Alex Young
Yes, so it's basically an artificial solar eclipse visible disc of the sun. The sun we're familiar with is so incredibly bright that you can't see the very faint structures like the corona, the outer atmosphere or these coronal mass ejections as they come off the sun. So you block the sun's bright disc out, and that's what a coronagraph is. It's basically a telescope very sensitive sensitive that you block out the bright sun and you can see these much, much fainter structures coming away from the sun, or coming towards you or away from you, and so that's a coronagraph. Now, our coronagraphs are not as good as nature. The moon-Earth-sun system does a much better job because of size and distance, but we're getting better and better at making chronographs and we're able to look closer and closer down towards the, the limb or the edge of the sun, though we'll not be able to make it to as close as a total solar eclipse here on Earth anytime.

Soon, however, there is a new spacecraft that's going to be launched and I'm not sure when. It's being built right now by ESA. It's called a PROBA, one of the PROBA satellites, which is one of their technology experiment satellites, and it's going to have two spacecraft flying in formation, and that allows you to have a much longer baseline between the telescope and what's called the occult, the thing that's blocking the telescope. That's why, for eclipses here on earth, it works so well, because the moon and sun is, and the earth are so much farther away. So the farther away you can pull those, the better you can do it. Now, this is some amazing technology, because these two spacecraft have to stay exactly in line, and so that's a really huge engineering challenge. But you know, that's what they're they're planning to do, and I I feel pretty confident that they're going to be able to do it, which is going to be amazing.

0:44:37 - Rod Pyle
So I just want to drop in a definition here for people. You were mentioning the GOES satellite earlier. That's the geostationary operational environmental satellite.

0:44:46 - Dr. Alex Young
Yes, thank you. I you know I could. I could never remember what it was. I know geostationary is about the only thing I can remember, so so um the, the Parker probe you know for.

0:45:01 - Rod Pyle
For civilians, that's probably the biggest news in in solar uh observing spacecraft we've heard about in the last 10 years. Did people in your field get a lot from that, or was that looking at other things?

0:45:13 - Dr. Alex Young
Oh yeah. So, uh, that's a. That is another amazing piece of uh engineer. It's an engineering marvel.

Um, so I will say, to give a little bit of uh, historical context, you know the space age started, basically, and our our first data and observations of space came from our study of the Van Allen probes by James Van Allen, and that was the Explorer 1 spacecraft launched in 1958. Well, at the same time, a theoretical astrophysicist named of electrons, protons, of this solar plasma or the corona itself streaming away from the sun, and that has that's very important, for it has impacts on space weather. It also is very important for understanding how a star works. He predicted it and just a few years later we observed the solar wind. So that was an amazing event and at that point we wanted to go to the sun. You know that was one of the big goals. You know, for example, the Hubble was another big goal, you know, having a big, giant telescope in space, and so it's taken 60 years for the technology and the engineering to finally catch up so that we could do that, and that is Parker Solar Probe.

It has now done this multiple times. It's coming up on its 18th trip around the sun and each time it gets a little bit closer. It has a couple of orbits that are the same and then it'll pass by Venus, which allows it to get even closer. Its next uh pass of Venus is later this year and that will bring it to its closest approach, uh, within 4 million miles from the, the visible surface of the sun, the, the photosphere as we call it. Um, and that's just an amazing thing. It's going to happen on December 24th. So so that's kind of the background.

But the Parker solar probe has given us just untold amount of amazing data of the inner part of the atmosphere, the corona, the solar wind, because we have lots that we don't understand about it. It's also made huge measurements of energetic particles, these radiation storms, and it has in fact flown through a couple of these coronal mass ejections. So scientists are just now sifting through all that amazing data and making really incredible discoveries about how that those processes work. So I know that's a long thing, but, people, you know, to have some some perspective, that we now, after 60 years, have made it to the sun. And it was named after eugene parker, who, uh, discovered the solar wind, predicted the solar wind, and he is the. That's the first spacecraft that's named after someone who was still alive. Now he's since passed away, but he was at the launch launch and he was there to see his namesake head towards towards the sun.

0:48:40 - Tariq Malik
Well, I think, I think that's amazing. I know that Europe has solar observatory to or solar probe orbiter. Yeah, well, I've got another burning question about what's next for the sun, but I'm going to ask it right after this quick break, corny. So, alex, we have all these new satellites, these new spacecraft, these new instruments, even on earth, to observe the sun. And I was just reading today actually on that the sun's like magnetic field, that you were, I guess, that part of that dynamo product placement.

I don't know what you're talking about. I don't know what you're talking about, but that the sun's magnetic field is going to, I guess, flip soon and I've heard a lot of like doom and gloom folks talking about that for earth's own magnetic field, and I'm curious how, how, how, that would affect the sun's weather, if at all, and if we should be worried about something like that.

0:49:33 - Dr. Alex Young
So let me make sure I understand. So your question is about the Earth's magnetic field flipping.

0:49:40 - Tariq Malik
No, no, the sun's, oh, the sun's Okay.

0:49:42 - Dr. Alex Young
Well, that is an interesting. That's a good point, because so, yes, as you mentioned, both the Earth and the sun's magnetic fields flip. The interesting thing, though, is because they are still somewhat different, well, very different. The Earth's magnetic field flips randomly, we don't know, there's no real pattern, and it can take millions of years or hundreds of thousands of years, and it's been, I think, 700,000 years since the last time it flipped. But the sun does it much more close to clockwork. So, just like the up and down of the solar cycle, that's roughly 11 years the sun's magnetic field flips once over the first 11 years and then flips back again. So there's another cycle, not just the solar cycle, but the magnetic cycle. That's in fact 22 years, or roughly 22 years, and so that happens. Every you know it flips, it moves rather slowly, oriented one way to the other way, right towards the after we pass the peak of solar maximum.

As we're now beginning to start heading back to solar minimum, that's when the magnetic field does's reversal, and it doesn't really it doesn't really have any major impact on space weather, except there's a couple of things.

One, during that flip, when the magnetic field is kind of all over the place before it sort of settles back to the other way. It's one of the few times when you can have activity from just about anywhere on the sun. Typically, sunspots, for example, are confined to a band around the sun, so you don't usually see eruptions, like you know, at the poles or higher up in latitude, but that particular time when it does that flip, that does happen. The other thing that scientists have noticed and I think we're now just starting to have some studies to really maybe understand this is that many of the largest solar eruptions, solar storms over history, occur on the downturn, after it flips, and so that's something you know. We're having a lot of activity now, but if, if that continues to follow, we're going to actually have some of the biggest activity after we make it over the hump, after we make it over the hump.

0:52:32 - Rod Pyle
Okay. So, being a fan of science fiction since I was little which is a lot longer away for me than it was for you guys I watched a lot of bad science fiction when I was young and some of that involved the sun doing terrible things. And it does remind you and you know tons more about this than either of us do that we're living relatively close to this giant thermonuclear furnace that's burning. You know conducting fusion constantly, and you know the more we have space telescopes and look further out, the more we see stars do funny things every now and then. I mean, do you ever lie awake in bed like I do from time to time, thinking you know what, if it just gets pissed off one day, it does something really bad. And I happen to be on the daylight side of the earth and you know it's like roasting a marshmallow it's a lot bigger.

0:53:23 - Dr. Alex Young
I mean I do. I do wonder, you know, what's the worst thing that could happen in terms of infrastructure and how bad could it be. And we really haven't experienced anything super terrible. And we've had some really large events. We had the one a couple of weeks ago. We had a famous series of events in 2003 and also in 1989. And you know, I think for the most part people haven't really noticed it. I mean, everybody's kind of gone about their day. I do sort of sit back at times and just think, wow, it looks so boring, you know, when we just like put on our solar glasses, but all this stuff's coming off it all the time, I mean even not just the big ones, you know, and it's just it's kind of mind boggling. I'm not quite sure what to think about it.

0:54:21 - Tariq Malik
We're only seeing half the sun too.

0:54:24 - Rod Pyle
So how big an event would it take? I mean, we just went through a couple of of X-class flares how big an event would it take to disrupt the power grid in a major way? We always hear about that with regard to EMPs, but not so much with the sun.

0:54:37 - Dr. Alex Young
Well, I mean we did. There were some when we did notice, I think in this most recent one, some changes in in the currents going into electrical grids. I don't think any grids went down. I'm not positive about that. We'll probably hear more about it over the next couple of years, but so far At least, within the end of the 20th century into the 21st century, we've had some pretty big events.

The ones I mentioned, the one in 1989 did take down Quebec hydropowers grid and that impacted many millions of people. It even propagated down to New Jersey and that area, new Jersey and that area. I mean, if we had an event that was comparable to the Carrington event in terms of the size of the CME, because the CME is what impacts the power grid. The flare has changes in the atmosphere which can impact spacecraft and communications, but it's really that blob of stuff that comes slamming into the Earth communications, but it's really that blob of stuff that comes slamming into the earth I think it would probably take something along the lines of the Carrington or bigger for us to really have, you know, any sort of major noticeable impact. I'd like to hope that the power companies have figured a lot of that stuff out. I think they certainly are in a better place than they were several decades ago, but I'm not fully sure about how ready they are for something of that scale.

0:56:15 - Tariq Malik
I do know that at the start of solar cycle 25, there was some meetings in Congress all about having to safeguard the grid, but I'm not sure they actually did anything.

0:56:27 - Rod Pyle
A lot of talking and hand-grabbing, but when it comes to hardening, that's expensive.

0:56:32 - Tariq Malik
I will tell you Rod's question about what lies awake. I've seen some science fiction, too, and there were two that I wanted to ask you about, because there's one horrifying one, uh, starring Nick cage, called knowing from 2009, in which, uh, the end of time, solar flare just wipes out everything.

Yeah, Uh and and I'm curious if that's something that that that worries you. And then, and then there's another one, uh, I guess from 2013, called sunshine, uh, and these are on, uh, and these are on John Lyons, 57 and 56. If we need them, well, we have to restart the sun because it's going out, and that's the part that. I'm worried about right Is, like you know, that when the sun's going to die, what happens there?

0:57:28 - Dr. Alex Young
And I'm just curious if those are things that you're ever concerned about, about a super flare that just burns us all to a crisp or us just freezing like whatsicles for for want of a better term well, I've certainly wondered. I mean, uh, I haven't seen, knowing, and I really need to see it because I've people have told me about and I watch a lot of science fiction but I, for some reason, I've never seen it. Um, I saw, I certainly saw sunshine. There was actually one with tom hanks. Uh, there was like on apple tv that's right.

And there the atmosphere was damaged so that ultraviolet light was really strong and people you know got burned going outside yeah, yeah yeah, that wasn't.

That one is probably sort of more realistic. I mean, there's many aspects of it that are not realistic. It is true that the sun could damage ozone layer and could increase the UV. I don't believe it's going to be enough that, you know, you stick your hand outside and it immediately starts burning or something. But that's, um, that's a bit more realistic. That would be a, you know, a really huge event that, like damaged our atmosphere or something like that.

I don't really worry too much about it. I certainly don't worry about the sun stopping. I mean, I do feel pretty confident that it's going to last for another 5 billion years, years. But it is the case that you know we could have a really, really massive solar eruption. It's I don't believe it's going to be something that is going to, you know, like, wipe out the atmosphere and, you know, kill lots of people or something like that. It could have some, you know, lasting impact on our infrastructure, like knocking out you know, a couple of power grid, you know areas in the power grid and some transformers which could take weeks to months to fix, and that would be pretty bad. But I don't really lose any sleep over that. But I, you know, I studied before. I studied the sun, I studied gamma ray bursts and I'm you know, maybe you guys. Yeah, those are like the biggest explosions in the universe that happen billions of light years away. And if one of those, just like a supernova, happened in our neighborhood, that would be really bad.

0:59:45 - Tariq Malik
I didn't have enough to worry about.

0:59:47 - Dr. Alex Young
But I don't feel like that's very plausible, in the sense that we do have a pretty good idea of what's around us, you know. So I know that's kind of a long answer, but no, I don't think so.

1:00:00 - Tariq Malik
I think that's good. I would just advise to any parents with young children and by young I mean like two to three or four, four just don't start a discussion about the sun going out without planning for what you're going to say afterward, because that was a very difficult discussion that I had with my daughter when she was.

That's how you keep them in line you know if you keep behaving like that daddy's going to turn off the sun when, when zeta was three, she was asking about what's going to happen to her toys and the art pictures on the walls and the house, and I was like it's, it's, we're not even going to be around to worry about it. And then she's like why aren't we going to be around to worry about it?

1:00:34 - Dr. Alex Young
because they'll melt and blister honey, just like you will oh, I can imagine that would be pretty bad to talk to a child about you know, I said it like I realized what I had done. Well, I do. You know, I do try to be very careful. I mean, I've talked to kids as young as first grade.

1:00:56 - Rod Pyle
Um, in some of my outreach and I I do tend to stay away from the, the bigger space weather aspect you know, Uh so I would love to ask, before we let you go, what you're working on now and what big research projects you have left in your portfolio.

1:01:17 - Dr. Alex Young
So right now I've actually been spending a lot of time not doing as much of the research but working on, you know, helping the data, the groups that do a lot of the new data science and open science. I actually do a lot of data science kind of work, statistics. One of the things that I am interested in research-wise is actually related to the statistics of these large events the Carrington event or the, you know, the Quebec event. We don't have very many of those, and so doing statistics when you have very few of these big events and we ultimately want to know the answer to what's the chance of these big ones, so that's a really challenging area and so I'm doing some research in that area and so I'm doing some research in that.

But I also spend a bit of time really in research of science communication. You know how do I take these really complicated. I mean, heliophysics is not an easy field to talk about, even to other scientists and how do I, how do I make that, you know, accessible to people, you know, palatable to lots of different audiences, make it interesting, hopefully, make them care about it, but also not lose sleep over it. You know, I think that that was a really good point. I mean it's important. We want people to be aware of it, but I don't want people to be scared.

1:02:48 - Tariq Malik
Yeah, yeah.

1:02:50 - Rod Pyle
Not unless you have a way to charge the money to keep them safe. By the way, I want to tell everybody to make sure to check out his website, the Sun Today. It's just chock full of good stuff and I guess you have to update that every day, yeah.

1:03:03 - Dr. Alex Young
Well, the data is updated every day. I I have to get back to putting some more information. I need to spend some time writing uh, I, uh, that's. That's something I've got to do. I've done a lot of uh work. I do a lot of posts on twitter, facebook, instagram. I've been kind of out of the posting for a couple of weeks because I had surgery on my right hand and I'm right handed, but I'm now getting back so that I can start. You know, I usually tweet and post every day about what's happening.

1:03:38 - Rod Pyle
Well, according to the Sunday show on this very here network, apple, if you have Apple devices, you'll now just be able to tell them what you want and they'll transcribe and do everything, including write it for you, according to apple ai. But uh, that's cheating. Um, I would love to. I want to thank you for coming to join us today for episode 115 of this week in space. Our friendly mr sun. I just had to work that old title did you ever see the? Film no no I didn't?

oh, that was an educational film from I think the late 50s. Oh, that sounds awesome. Some guy in a lab coat talking about it was directed by, uh, howard hawks oh, you should have found video of that.

1:04:19 - Tariq Malik
We should, yeah, that would be. Yeah, look for that that it's.

1:04:22 - Rod Pyle
It's definitely worth worth watching. It's very much a product of its time. Please, everyone, don't forget to check out websites in the name and don't forget to check out the Sun Today, the websites in the name and the National Space Society at nssorg. Alex, is that the best place to follow what you're up to in your current research?

1:04:42 - Dr. Alex Young
Yeah, yeah, and I have a daily blog that's posted on the sun today down on the blog section, about all of the activity that happens. I do posts every morning about what's happening in terms of Aurora and things like that, so it's a great place to keep up with what's going on.

1:04:59 - Rod Pyle
Man, you are devoted. I'm lucky if I can get get myself to look at social media twice a week. Tariq speaking of social media and being a clickbait meister where can we track?

1:05:10 - Tariq Malik
what you're up to. It is not clickbait. No, you can find me at, as always on the Twitter. Well, I guess the X at Tariq J Malik. If you like video game videos that come out once a week, you can find me on YouTube at Space Drawn Plays, and I highly highly recommend that everyone, if you're in the Washington DC area, go to the Goddard Space Flight Center. They've got a visitor center there. They have an amazing like a sun wall where you can just like bask in the glow of the sun from the Solar Dynamics Observatory A live feed too, by the way.

1:05:42 - Dr. Alex Young
Yeah, and we just updated the heliophysics exhibit, as a matter of fact so so go check that out because it is worth the drive.

1:05:49 - Rod Pyle
It takes me five hours to get there and I still enjoy, so well, and, by the way, since you mentioned that, I'll mention I worked with griffith observatory for years, which is in la, of course, los angeles, and they have a wonderful triple beam celestat, and I never actually in my 10 years there, figured out exactly what a celestat was, except that it was a solar telescope that had three mirrors on the top that converged on the bottom. One of them displays an image of the sun on a roughly, I guess, four by four foot piece of uh of ground glass. And then we had a spectrometer and I forget what was on the other side, but it was a cool device. It's something you could sit and watch the sun live on. And, of course, you can find me at astromagazinecom and you can find us collectively at twist at, so feel free to email us there and tell us how wonderful we were today.

That's TWIS at We always welcome your comments, suggestions and ideas. New episodes of this podcast publish every Friday on your favorite podcatcher, so make sure to subscribe, tell your friends and give us reviews. We'll take them all, don't forget. You can get all the great programming with video streams and content you will not see elsewhere on the TWiT Network, ad-free, on Club TWiT, which is only $7 a month. So join because, frankly, we need it, and you can follow the TWiT tech podcast network at TWiT on Twitter or x and on Face and on Instagram. Thank you everyone, it's been a real pleasure and we'll see you next week.

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