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Phone Woes? It Could Be A Burst Solar 'Inner Tube'

Scientists discover a new type of eruption that affects Earth

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For solar scientists, the new sun-studying SOHO satellite is an eye-opener. Its view, undistorted by Earth's atmosphere, has revealed a previously unknown kind of solar eruption that directly affects our planet.

The eruptions are produced when a magnetic trap circling the sun's equator collects electrically charged particles. This trap forms a magnetic "inner tube" of these particles around the sun that fills and eventually bursts. Then, unlike the well-known flares that eject narrow jets, this outburst becomes a global event because it shoots out highly energetic particles in all directions.

While this discovery is important for scientists, it is equally important for everyone on Earth who depends on electric power lines or electronic communications. Streams of energetic solar particles laced with magnetic field lines can damage satellites. They interact with Earth's magnetic field in ways that disrupt radio communications and power lines. That's why the United States and some other nations run solar-flare forecasting services.

In reporting the new discovery, Guenter Brueckner of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington says that this may account for magnetic storms that have caught the flare forecasters by surprise. The sun now is in its so-called quiet phase near the minimum of the roughly 11-year sunspot cycle. Dr. Brueckner notes that there are no sunspots or flares right now. But there is plenty of what he calls "huff and puff" going on with this newly discovered eruptive mode. The good news, he adds, is that as scientists work through the SOHO data, "I think we may have something that will be predictive." It may be possible to give several days warning of a potentially disruptive event at Earth.

Explaining this during the spring meeting here of the American Geophysical Union, Brueckner says that during this sunspot minimum, magnetic fields from the sun's more northern and southern regions sometimes bend toward the equatorial zone. They form a magnetic structure that accumulates electrically charged particles like an tire tube filling with air. Instruments such as the one Brueckner's team uses on SOHO can monitor the buildup and outburst of these particles. This holds out the possibility of providing timely warnings.

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