Flipping Out Over the Sun’s Big Flip
¡Viva la Science!
As it turns out, the sun flips its magnetic field about every 11 years. “North” becomes “South” and vice versa. It’s all part of the sun’s cycle of solar weather. When the sun flips its magnetic field, it’s halfway into its period of greatest solar activity, known as the solar maximum (or solar max, if you’re cool like me). We’re in the midst of Solar Cycle 24, apparently, and when the field shift occurs, we’ll be halfway through the solar max.
The magnetic field flip will happen in an estimated 3 to 4 months, and it “will have ripple effects throughout the solar system,” says Todd Hoeksema, the director of the Wilcox Solar Observatory at Stanford University.
Now here’s a part that sounds really Star Trek: There’s something called a “current sheet” that radiates from the sun’s equator. It’s vast, extending outward for billions of kilometers. It’s ten thousand kilometers thick. Seriously, we’re talking about something really enormous, here—Pluto’s orbit looks teeny-tiny in comparison.
The current sheet is affected by those field reversals in the sun. It gets all wavy, for one thing, kind of like a warped vinyl record—so as the Earth keeps orbiting the sun, we move in and out of the current sheet. The movements can create stormy “space weather” around the Earth. (Possibly you are thinking that “space weather” doesn’t even sound like a real thing. I don’t blame you. “Let’s check on the space weather before we beam into that wormhole at warp speed, Captain!” Sure, that makes sense.) Space weather, though, includes things like solar wind, solar flares, coronal mass ejections and sunspots.
Ripples in the current sheet can also help shield our solar system from cosmic rays, superfast particles that are no good for astronauts and space probes (and might also affect our earthly climate, though the jury’s still out on that one).
There’s nothing like considering the grand mechanics at work in our universe to provide some perspective. Though some media outlets (and I use the term loosely) are using the real science behind the sun’s field flip to stir up inane fears—which is what has required NASA scientists to reassure us in the first place that doom be not at hand—rest assured that the universe is ticking along exactly as it’s supposed to.
If you want to know more about current sheets and space weather and the like, take a gander at this very helpful video: