Science

Advance warning system for solar flares hinges on surprising hypotheses

Advance warning system for sol...
A solar flare observed by NASA and ESA's Solar & Heliospheric Observatory on October 29 2003 (Image: NASA / ESA)
A solar flare observed by NASA and ESA's Solar & Heliospheric Observatory on October 29 2003 (Image: NASA / ESA)
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A solar flare observed by NASA and ESA's Solar & Heliospheric Observatory on October 29 2003 (Image: NASA / ESA)
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A solar flare observed by NASA and ESA's Solar & Heliospheric Observatory on October 29 2003 (Image: NASA / ESA)

Scientists may have hit upon a new means of predicting solar flares more than a day in advance, which hinges on a hypothesis dating back to 2006 that solar activity affects the rate of decay of radioactive materials on Earth. Study of the phenomenon could lead to a new system which monitors changes in gamma radiation emitted from radioactive materials, and if the underlying hypothesis proves correct, this could lead to solar flare advance warning systems that would assist in the protection of satellites, power systems and astronauts.

In 2006, nuclear engineer Jere Jenkins of Purdue University noticed a change in the decay rate of a radioactive sample 39 hours before a solar flare. Since joined by a Purdue University professor of Physics named Ephraim Fischbach, Jenkins' subsequent research has reinforced the discovery, using two samples of the same isotope, chlorine 36, in two separate experiments in two different labs.

It isn't just solar flares that seem to induce changes in radioactive decay rate. Changes in solar rotation and activity, and the Earth's position on its orbital path around the Sun also appear to have an effect, and it's the latter variable which seems to have been decisive in the research. Between July 2005 and June 2011, continued monitoring has apparently shown consistent annual variation in the decay rate of chlorine 36, peaking in January and February, and ebbing in July and August.

An 11-year solar cycle is set to peak in 2013, and the researchers claim a solar storm as strong as the Carrington Event of 1859 would be devastating to the technology of today.

"There was so much energy from this solar storm that the telegraph wires were seen glowing and the aurora borealis appeared as far south as Cuba," said Fischbach. "Because we now have a sophisticated infrastructure of satellites, power grids and all sort of electronic systems, a storm of this magnitude today would be catastrophic. Having a day and a half warning could be really helpful in averting the worst damage."

Among the proposed protection measures are the temporary shutting down of satellites (the designs of which would need to be adapted to accommodate this feature) and power networks prior to solar flares.

Purdue's proposed detector uses a sample of manganese 54 which is monitored with a gamma-radiation detector as it decays into chromium 54. It's hoped that anomalies in the rate of decay would indicate forthcoming solar flares. A US patent has been filed to protect the idea.

The research has significant implications for science. To date, the rate of radioactive decay is understood to be constant. Further, the researchers hypothesize that it's neutrinos that are affecting the change in the rate of decay: an idea sure to turn heads.

"Since neutrinos have essentially no mass or charge, the idea that they could be interacting with anything is foreign to physics," Jenkins said. "So, we are saying something that doesn't interact with anything is changing something that can't be changed. Either neutrinos are affecting decay rate or perhaps an unknown particle is."

Jenkins hopes to continue the research, verifying the findings using more sensitive equipment. The latest findings were published last week in the report Analysis of gamma radiation from a radon source: Indications of a solar influence in the journal Astroparticle Physics.

Source: Purdue University

Scientists may have hit upon a new means of predicting solar flares more than a day in advance, which hinges on a hypothesis dating back to 2006 that solar activity affects the rate of decay of radioactive materials on Earth. Study of the phenomenon could lead to a new system which monitors changes in gamma radiation emitted from radioactive materials, and if the underlying hypothesis proves correct, this could lead to solar flare advance warning systems that would assist in the protection of satellites, power systems and astronauts.

In 2006, nuclear engineer Jere Jenkins of Purdue University noticed a change in the decay rate of a radioactive sample 39 hours before a solar flare. Since joined by a Purdue University professor of Physics named Ephraim Fischbach, Jenkins' subsequent research has reinforced the discovery, using two samples of the same isotope, chlorine 36, in two separate experiments in two different labs.

It isn't just solar flares that seem to induce changes in radioactive decay rate. Changes in solar rotation and activity, and the Earth's position on its orbital path around the Sun also appear to have an effect, and it's the latter variable which seems to have been decisive in the research. Between July 2005 and June 2011, continued monitoring has apparently shown consistent annual variation in the decay rate of chlorine 36, peaking in January and February, and ebbing in July and August.

An 11-year solar cycle is set to peak in 2013, and the researchers claim a solar storm as strong as the Carrington Event of 1859 would be devastating to the technology of today.

"There was so much energy from this solar storm that the telegraph wires were seen glowing and the aurora borealis appeared as far south as Cuba," said Fischbach. "Because we now have a sophisticated infrastructure of satellites, power grids and all sort of electronic systems, a storm of this magnitude today would be catastrophic. Having a day and a half warning could be really helpful in averting the worst damage."

Among the proposed protection measures are the temporary shutting down of satellites (the designs of which would need to be adapted to accommodate this feature) and power networks prior to solar flares.

Purdue's proposed detector uses a sample of manganese 54 which is monitored with a gamma-radiation detector as it decays into chromium 54. It's hoped that anomalies in the rate of decay would indicate forthcoming solar flares. A US patent has been filed to protect the idea.

The research has significant implications for science. To date, the rate of radioactive decay is understood to be constant. Further, the researchers hypothesize that it's neutrinos that are affecting the change in the rate of decay: an idea sure to turn heads.

"Since neutrinos have essentially no mass or charge, the idea that they could be interacting with anything is foreign to physics," Jenkins said. "So, we are saying something that doesn't interact with anything is changing something that can't be changed. Either neutrinos are affecting decay rate or perhaps an unknown particle is."

Jenkins hopes to continue the research, verifying the findings using more sensitive equipment. The latest findings were published last week in the report Analysis of gamma radiation from a radon source: Indications of a solar influence in the journal Astroparticle Physics.

Source: Purdue University

16 comments
jmo
I'd like to know if this affects carbon dating calculations.
MBadgero
"Good news, if true." But why? What happens in the sun 39 hours before a solar flare? If this is a repeatable, observable effect, it could tell us a lot about how radioactive decay works. Does the rate increase or decrease before the flare?
Chuck Anziulewicz
Thank goodness for the fact that astrophysicists are constant monitoring solar activity, so that something like the Carrington Event would not catch us unawares. Even if a truly gargantuan Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) took place and was determined to head our way, at least we would have a day or two of warning.
I've always wondered whether shutting down the power grid temporarily could avert the worst of the potential damage due to such an event. Thanks for pointing out that there ARE measures that can be taken. There's a big difference between taking such measures and doing without electricity for a few days, and NOT taking such measures and having our electric infrastructure in a complete shambles for MONTHS.
Joel Detrow
I get excited every time I hear about this theory regarding decay rates tied to solar activity. Science!
inchiki
this is fascinating! is this the long lost gravity particle being detected? or some other unknown field that permeates everything? feels like there could be a couple of Nobel prizes in here..
Snake Oil Baron
I'm not really sold on the idea but I do find it interesting. In certain situations, normal matter can produce neutrinos when it decays, right? So is it really so hard to envision neutrinos producing decay events in normal matter?
Heather Bowman
In what way does this effect radiometric dating?
piperTom
What's a "solar storm"? If you mean coronal mass ejection (CME), then less than 1 in a thousand is directed close enough to earth to cause concern. A detector that raises thousands of false alarms for every real event is useless.
There there's this: it's easy to see there could be a connection between cosmic ray background radiation and solar activity; it's "highly speculative" to see a connection with nuclear decay. Since the former is the noise in a measurement of the latter, experimental error seems the likely cause here.
Finally, gamma radiation does not (by itself) change one element to another. So your "manganese 54" to "chromium 54" reference is incomplete, at best.
BombR76
I like the comments of 'jmo' and 'Heather'. How DOES this effect radiometric dating?
We know that steady-state decay may not be steady-state, and therefore our calculations may be off, maybe way-off. Does science have empirical evidence that radiometric decay is the same today as it was eons ago? This is ground-breaking news !!!
Mel Tisdale
From what I know of the effects of solar flares, they are like the EMPs that could be used to knock out a country's electrical equipement and thus communications prior to launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike. If that is the case, then we live on borrowed time.
Advance warning will only enable a very small amount of protective measures to be put in place. It is no good just 'switching off' a satlellite, it has to be 'hardened' at the design stage and seeing as such hardening adds weight, I guess very few of the civilian ones are protected.
Just imagine the devastation a solar flare could cause. We really are the most stupid species on the face of the planet. We mess with the climate without having much idea on where it will take us and we create an infrastructure on which modern life depends which could be knocked almost completely out of action in the blink of an eye. If humans had not evolved, then we would have gorillas or chimps as the most advanced animal. They would only be of a number that the planet could support and a Carrington event would go by unnoticed, except for perhaps the aurora borealis, which might have drawn the occasional "Ug!"