Cosmic Rays Sink to a 6-Year Low

Dec. 30, 2022: Cosmic rays reaching Earth just hit a six-year low. Neutron counters in Oulu, Finland, registered the sudden decrease on Dec. 26th when a coronal mass ejection (CME) hit Earth’s magnetic field:

The CME swept aside galactic cosmic rays near our planet, abruptly reducing radiation levels. Researchers call this a “Forbush Decrease,” after American physicist Scott Forbush, who studied cosmic rays in the early 20th century.

The Dec. 26th event continues a trend that began in 2020. Since then, cosmic ray fluxes have been fitfully decreasing as one CME after another hit Earth. The reason is Solar Cycle 25, which began around that time and has been gaining strength. The Forbush Decreases are adding up.

Scott Forbush was the first to notice the yin-yang relationship between solar activity and cosmic rays. When one goes up, the other goes down. CMEs play a big role in this relationship. The solar storm clouds contain tangled magnetic fields that do a good job scattering cosmic rays away from our planet.

A recent paper in the Astrophysical Journal looked at the last two solar cycles and compared the daily rate of CMEs to the strength of cosmic rays near Earth. This plot shows the results:

At the peak of Solar Cycle 24, the sun was producing more than 5 CMEs per day. At the same time, galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) dropped more than 60%.

Neutron counts are now at their lowest level since 2016. If current trends continue, cosmic ray levels will plunge even further in the years ahead, perhaps even lower than Solar Cycle 24. This is good news for astronauts and polar air travelers who will benefit from less radiation.

FAQ: Why neutrons? When cosmic rays strike Earth’s atmosphere, they produce a spray of secondary particles that rain down on Earth. Among these particles are neutrons, which can make it all the way down to Earth’s surface. Researchers at the Sodankyla Geophysical Observatory in Oulu, Finland, have been counting neutrons every day since 1964, providing an unparalleled record of cosmic rays for almost 60 years.

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HAARP Pings a Near-Earth Asteroid

Dec. 26, 2022: Researchers from NASA and the University of Alaska are about to perform an unusual radar experiment. They’re going to ping a near-Earth asteroid using shortwave radio. The target is a 500-ft-wide space rock named “2010 XC15.” When it passes by Earth on Tuesday, Dec. 27th, the HAARP array in Alaska will hit it with a pulse of 9.6 MHz radio waves.

The High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) site in Gakona, Alaska

Radio astronomers ping asteroids all the time. What’s unusual about this experiment is the frequency: 9.6 MHz is hundreds of times lower than typical S-band and X-band frequencies used by other asteroid radars. The goal is to probe the asteroid’s interior.

Lead investigator Mark Haynes of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) explains: “The low frequencies we are using can penetrate the asteroid, unlike S-band or X-band frequencies which reflect mostly off of the surface. Ultimately the idea is to use echoes to form tomographic images of asteroid interiors.”

Knowing the internal structure of an asteroid could come in handy — especially if you need to destroy it. 2010 XC15 poses no threat 770,000 km from Earth. Tomorrow’s experiment is proof-of-concept for a scarier object: Asteroid Apophis, which will buzz Earth closer than many satellites on April 13, 2029. If shortwave asteroid radar works for 2010 XC15, it should work for Apophis, too, giving planetary defense experts key data about the asteroid’s vulnerabilities.

Above: The OVRO Long Wavelength Array near Bishop, CA, will receive echoes from HAARP’s transmission

HAARP will transmit a continually chirping signal to asteroid 2010 XC15 at slightly above and below 9.6 MHz. The chirp will repeat at two-second intervals. The University of New Mexico Long Wavelength Array near Socorro, NM, and the Owens Valley Radio Observatory Long Wavelength Array near Bishop, CA, will receive the reflected signal.

“This will be the lowest frequency asteroid radar observation ever attempted,” notes Lance Benner, a co-investigator from JPL. If the experiment works it could mark a significant advance in asteroid radar. Stay tuned!

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A New Paradigm for Solar Activity: The Extended Solar Cycle

Dec. 12, 2022: So you thought you knew the solar cycle? Think again. A new paper published in Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences confirms that there is more to solar activity than the well-known 11-year sunspot cycle. Data from Stanford University’s Wilcox Solar Observatory (WSO) reveal two solar cycles happening at the same time, and neither is 11 years long.

“We call it ‘the Extended Solar Cycle,'” says lead author Scott McIntosh of NCAR. “There are two overlapping patterns of activity on the sun, each lasting about 17 years.”

Solar physicists have long suspected this might be true. References to “overlapping solar cycles” can be found in research literature as far back as 1903.  A figure from the new Frontiers paper seems to clinch the case:

The top panel shows sunspot counts since 1976. The curve goes up and down every 11 years, which explains why everyone thinks the solar cycle is 11 years long. The bottom panel shows what’s really going on.

“The red and blue colors represent magnetic fields on the surface of the sun,” explains Phil Scherrer of Stanford University, a co-author of the paper who works closely with data from the Wilcox Solar Observatory. “We have been monitoring these fields since 1976, gathering a unique long-term record of the sun’s magnetism.”

Wilcox data show not one but two co-existing patterns of activity. They overlap in a way any music major will recognize: The sun is “singing rounds.” A round is a musical piece in which multiple voices sing the same melody, but start the song at different times. Imagine a group of children singing “Row, row, row your boat.” Half of the kids start first; the other half start 5 syllables later. The sun is doing the same thing with its magnetic fields, except instead of 5 syllables (“row, row, row your boat“) the gap is a little more than 5 years.

In the zoomed-in image, above, two representative cycles are labeled “1” and “2”. Most of the time both cycles are active, but not always. When one stops (….life is but a dream…), the other takes complete control of the sun and sunspot counts surge. This is when Solar Maximum happens. McIntosh calls the transition “the Terminator.”

11 years vs. 17 years. 1 cycle vs. 2 cycles. What difference does it make?

“The Extended Solar Cycle may be telling us something crucial about what’s happening deep inside the sun where sunspot magnetic fields are generated,” says McIntosh. “It poses significant challenges to prevalent dynamo theories of the solar cycle.”

Want to learn more? Milestone references in the development of the Extended Solar Cycle paradigm include Martin & Harvey (1979), Wilson et al (1988), Srivastava et al (2018).