Earth is bracing for a solar minimum: a dormant period in which the Sun radiates less energy or heat at our planet than usual. Scientists have warned that as a result of the Sun’s inactivity, Earth is likely to witness a ‘mini ice age’ that could bring extreme winters and chilly cold storms over the next 30 years.
According to NASA, the Sun will reach its lowest activity in over 200 years in 2020. As it further goes into its natural hibernation phase, Earth will experience extremely cold spells which will trigger food shortages across the planet. The average temperatures could drop as much as one degree Celsius in a period lasting about 12 months. That might not sound a lot but a whole degree fall would have a significant impact on global average temperatures.
Solar minimums are part of the Sun’s natural life cycle and occur once every 11 years. However, 2020’s minimum is going to be a special case. That’s because it marks the start of a rare event known as a Grand Solar Minimum, in which energy emitted from the Sun plummets down even more than usual. These only occur once every 400 years or so.
As per Northumbria University expert Valentina Zharkova, the icy spells and wet summers could be around until 2053, when solar activity picks up again. She told The Sun that the onset of the Grand Solar Minimum is already evident in Canada and Iceland, “We will possibly get big frosts as is happening now in Canada where they see [temperatures] of -50 degree Celsuis.”
The last Grand Solar Minimum, according to the report, was the Maunder Minimum which lasted from 1645 to 1715. The cruel cold decades saw the Thames and Amsterdam canals to freeze from time to time, something which is quite unusual today. This cold spell was likely set off by a number of factors including a slew of massive volcanic eruptions. In the forthcoming GSM, scientists are expecting a shift in the global temperatures caused due to human activity like rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
A U.S. Naval Research Laboratory-built camera mounted on the NASA Parker Solar Probe revealed an asteroid dust trail that has eluded astronomers for decades.
Karl Battams, a computational scientist in NRL’s Space Science Division, discussed the results from the camera called Wide-Field Imager for Solar Probe (WISPR) on Dec. 11 during a NASA press conference.
WISPR enabled researchers to identify the dust cloud trailing the orbit of the asteroid 3200 Phaethon.
“This is why NRL’s heliospheric imagers are so ground-breaking,” Battams said. “They allow you to see near-Sun outflows massively fainter than the Sun itself, which would otherwise blind our cameras. And in this case, you can also see solar system objects extremely close to the Sun, which most telescopes cannot do.”
He said the trail is best seen near the Sun where 3200 Phaethon’s dust is more densely packed, making WISPR a vital tool for scientists.
The data captured by WISPR determined the asteroid dust trail weighs an estimated billion tons, and measures more than 14 million miles long. The findings raise questions about the trail’s origin.
“Something catastrophic happened to Phaethon a couple of thousand years ago and created the Geminid Meteor shower,” Battams said. “There’s no way the asteroid is anywhere near active enough when it is near the Sun to produce the mass of dust we are seeing, so we are confident that WISPR is seeing part of the Geminid meteor stream.”
WISPR, designed, developed and led by NRL, records visible-light images of the solar corona and solar outflow in two overlapping cameras, which together cover more than 100-degrees angular width from the Sun.
Understanding how the solar environment behaves is important to the Navy and Marine Corps because when the solar winds reach Earth, they can affect GPS, spacecraft operations, and ground-based power grids.
WISPR and the Parker Solar Probe will continue to orbit the Sun for the next five years.
When it comes to our home planet, it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. For instance, in spite of what you may have heard in history or science class, it’s not, in fact, possible to see the Great Wall of China from outer space.
And that’s not the only common misconception about Earth. Here are some of the biggest lies you were probably taught about Earth.
Columbus Discovered That the Earth Is Round
You’ve probably heard the famous “in fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” poem. As the legend goes, against all odds, Christopher Columbus headed out on a voyage to East Asia by heading west instead of east from Europe. The monarchy (who funded the trip) was worried that Columbus would never return because, of course, Earth was a big flat pancake and he might fall off.
Even by the 1400s, flat Earth theories had already been debunked, and the orb shape was already accepted after being proposed by Pythagoras thousands of years before. In fact, the voyage was plotted out based on the fact that the Earth was round! Coming upon America was a surprise, however.
You Can See The Great Wall of China From Space
It makes for a great story: Way up from outer space, astronauts can gaze upon the Great Wall of China. We hate to tell you, this not true.
While the wall may be great, according to NASA, it’s less visible than you might think from outer space. In fact, Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei reported that he wasn’t able to see the structure from space. Other astronauts have reported that it’s barely visible with a telephoto lens but not to the naked eye.
However, there’s still some good news for astro-followers: Certain landmarks, like cities and major reservoirs, are visible from space.
Earth Is Closer to The Sun in Summer
It seems like sound logic: it’s hotter in the summer because the Earth is closer to the sun at that time of year, right? Sorry, but no.
Consider this. If that were the case, how could it be summer in the southern hemisphere at the same time it’s winter in the northern hemisphere?
While it’s a little harder to wrap your mind around, it’s all based on the angle of the Earth. The Earth tilts, and its axis can vary throughout the course of its cycle. This is what causes the difference in seasons. A greater tilt means hotter summers and colder winters.
A Compass Always Points Due North
If you trust movies and TV, then you’re apt to think that a compass will always point due north. However, this isn’t quite the case. A compass points to the magnetic north. This is an important distinction because the magnetic pole changes based on activity in the Earth’s core.
That’s right: the magnetic pole that attracts all compasses is a moving target. It has been moving rapidly in recent years — as much as 30 or more miles per year. So be sure to take your compass reading with a grain of salt!
Deserts Are Always Hot
While the term “desert” probably makes you think of miles of sand and heat-induced mirages, deserts are not always hot.
A desert is considered any place that receives less than 10 inches of rain per year. This isn’t limited to hot places. For example, many of the polar regions of the world could be considered deserts because they don’t get much precipitation.
Doesn’t it feel good to unearth (get it?) the truth? There are plenty of misconceptions about the planet that we call home. But as time goes on and we learn more, we’re correcting these long-held, so-called “truths.”
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The NASA-tracked asteroid, dubbed Asteroid 2011 HP, is flying towards our planet on a so-called Earth Close Approach trajectory. NASA predicts the imposing space rock will shoot past Earth on the morning of Thursday, May 30. According to NASA’ Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the asteroid will approach the planet around 11.48am BST or 6.48am Eastern Time. When this happens, NASA said the asteroid will break speeds of around 8.43km per second or 18,857.4mph (30,348kmh).
By all accounts, the exoplanet known as WASP-19b is a pretty inhospitable place. As one of the closest known hot-Jupiters to its star—orbiting just two percent of the distance between the Earth and the Sun—it’s home to a scorchingly hot, violent atmosphere. The side of the planet which always faces the star churns with massive convection currents, dredging up heavier molecules from the planet’s lower layers.
Unsuitable for life as it may be, WASP-19b’s proximity to its star happened to make it a perfect candidate for atmospheric observation. A paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature has found the very first evidence of titanium oxide on any known exoplanet, in the upper atmosphere of WASP-19b. And that’s significant for a number of reasons.
“We will be able to constrain models and understand the structure of these atmospheres [and] where they were formed,” Elyar Sedaghati, European Southern Observatory astronomer and co-author of the study, told Gizmodo. “Because if we know what’s in the atmosphere, we can turn the clock back a little bit.”
WASP-19 is a pretty average star about 815 light years away from us, located in the Vela constellation. Its only known planet, WASP-19b, was detected by the Wide Angle Search for Planets in 2009, and it only takes three quarters of a day to orbit its star. That proximity made it a perfect target for a spunky little spectrograph called FORS2 (FOcal Reducer and low dispersion Spectrograph), which was originally installed to the Very Large Telescope in Chile in 1999, almost 20 years ago. But there was work to do before observations could begin.
“[The instrument] had to be upgraded,” said Sedaghati. “All that meant was basically replacing these two prisms that correct for some atmospheric distortions as the star goes near the horizon. These were causing some issues in the exoplanet observations that we were doing with this. So, in November 2014 we made the exchange.” He also hopes with these initial promising results, they go back and do even more improvements on the venerable device.
The researchers began peering at WASP-19b around that time, and they got some intriguing data in something called a light curve, which is the measure of how much the light dims when a planet transits a star. Spectrographs work by observing the light emitted by an object and breaking it into its spectra, much like when you shine white light through a prism and it turns into a rainbow. Using this data, you can determine what kind of chemicals are present in whatever the light is shining through. Because this particular planet is so close to its star, the researchers could see the spectra of its ferociously roiling atmosphere, which extends way further into space than, say, the atmosphere of a more distant gas giant like Jupiter does.
Getting better at decoding the atmospheres of exoplanets, even inhospitable ones like WASP-19b, will contribute to the holy grail of exoplanet research: hunting for signs of life. “Methane — that could be in combination with other molecules, a sign of life — will have very similar absorption features with titanium oxide. This basically gives us hope for future observations for example with the James Webb Telescope,” said Sedaghati.
“It’s a very nice result,” said Sara Seager, a professor of planetary sciences and physics at MIT, in an email. “I can say this is an outstanding achievement from a ground-based telescope and nature delivered us a fantastic hot planet atmosphere. So far, too many planets are literally “clouded out” and we can’t observe any spectral features. [Titanium Oxide] seems obscure, but is actually a very strong absorber—kind of like a skunk smell, only a tiny amount can make a difference.”
Seager says planets like WASP-19b have a “treasure trove” of features which are really useful to observe.
“It’s an amazing relief to see that planet atmospheres are behaving as expected. Hot planet atmospheres can be nearly as hot as cool star atmospheres and the cool stars are dominated by TiO,” she said.
Jonathan Fortney, an expert in exoplanet atmospheres at UC Santa Cruz, actually predicted that metal oxides would be present in nearby hot-Jupiters. But he admits discoveries in the field will be slow for now because most “general use” instruments can’t pick up the level of detail required for terrestrial exoplanetary atmospheric analysis. Even though the FORS2 tool has been really successful in this project, it was installed before we had even discovered exoplanets using the transit method.
“To me this shows that understanding exoplanet atmospheres is an extremely challenging observational field,” he said. “We must be thoughtful in how we design instruments to detect and understand exoplanet atmospheres. And we must be patient. I really think that this long time lag will be repeated, likely on an even longer time scale, for the atmospheres of temperate terrestrial planets.”
As the study of exoplanet atmospheres continues, be prepared to see stories of successful characterization where the evidence is a little sketchy, Fortney warns.
“People will make claims about these atmospheres, some will end up being correct, some will end up not being correct, and it will take a lot of time for the field to settle out, to correct itself. It will be exciting, but not clear-cut in the first findings,” said Fortney.
Bryson is a freelance storyteller who wants to explore the universe with you.
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