Tag Archives: solar

Interstellar Winds of Change

First measured in the early-seventies, the interstellar wind is far from a calm, consistent breeze. Rather, as new detailed measurements show, it’s a blustery, fickle gale.

From ars technica:

Interstellar space—the region between stars in our galaxy—is fairly empty. There are still enough atoms in that space to produce a measurable effect as the Sun orbits the galactic center, however. The flow of these atoms, known as the interstellar wind, provides a way to study interstellar gas, which moves independently of the Sun’s motion.

A new analysis of 40 years of data showed that the interstellar wind has changed direction and speed over time, demonstrating that the environment surrounding the Solar System changes measurably as well. Priscilla Frisch and colleagues compared the results from several spacecraft, both in Earth orbit and interplanetary probes. The different positions and times in which these instruments operated revealed that the interstellar wind has increased slightly in speed. Additional measurements revealed that the flow of atoms has shifted somewhere between 4.4 degrees and 9.2 degrees. Both these results indicate that the Sun is traveling through a changing environment, perhaps one shaped by turbulence in interstellar space.

The properties of the Solar System are dominated by the Sun’s gravity, magnetic field, and the flow of charged particles outward from its surface. However, a small number of electrically neutral particles—mostly light atoms—pass through the Solar System. These particles are part of the local interstellar cloud (LIC), a relatively hot region of space governed by its internal processes.

Neutral helium is the most useful product of the interstellar wind flowing through the Solar System. Helium is abundant, comprising roughly 25 percent of all interstellar atoms. In its electrically neutral form, helium is largely unaffected by magnetic fields, both from the Sun and within the LIC. The present study also considered neutral oxygen and nitrogen atoms, which are far less abundant, but more massive and therefore less strongly jostled even than helium.

When helium atoms flow through the Solar System, their paths are curved by the Sun’s gravity depending on how quickly they are moving. Slower atoms are more strongly affected than faster ones, so the effect is a cone of particle trajectories. The axis of that focusing cone is the dominant direction of the interstellar wind, while the width of the cone indicates how much variation in particle speeds is present, a measure of the speed and turbulence in the LIC.

The interstellar wind was first measured in the 1970s by missions such as the Mariner 10 (which flew by Venus and Mercury) from the United States and the Prognoz 6 satellite from the Soviet Union. More recently, the Ulysses spacecraft in solar orbit, the MESSENGER probe studying Mercury, and the IBEX (Interstellar Boundary EXplorer) mission collected data from several perspectives within the Solar System.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Local interstellar cloud. Courtesy of NASA.

Solar Tornadoes

No, Solar tornadoes are not another manifestation of our slowly warming planet. Rather, these phenomena are believed to explain why the outer reaches of the solar atmosphere are so much hotter than its surface.

[div class=attrib]From ars technica:[end-div]

One of the abiding mysteries surrounding our Sun is understanding how the corona gets so hot. The Sun’s surface, which emits almost all the visible light, is about 5800 Kelvins. The surrounding corona rises to over a million K, but the heating process has not been identified. Most solar physicists suspect the process is magnetic, since the strong magnetic fields at the Sun’s surface drive much of the solar weather (including sunspots, coronal loops, prominences, and mass ejections). However, the diffuse solar atmosphere is magnetically too quiet on the large scales. The recent discovery of atmospheric “tornadoes”—swirls of gas over a thousand kilometers in diameter above the Sun’s surface—may provide a possible answer.

As described in Nature, these vortices occur in the chromosphere (the layer of the Sun’s atmosphere below the corona) and they are common. There are about 10 thousand swirls in evidence at any given time. Sven Wedemeyer-Böhm and colleagues identified the vortices using NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) spacecraft and the Swedish Solar Telescope (SST). They measured the shape of the swirls as a function of height in the atmosphere, determining they grow wider at higher elevations, with the whole structure aligned above a concentration of the magnetic field on the Sun’s surface. Comparing these observations to computer simulations, the authors determined the vortices could be produced by a magnetic vortex exerting pressure on the gas in the atmosphere, accelerating it along a spiral trajectory up into the corona. Such acceleration could bring about the incredibly high temperatures observed in the Sun’s outer atmosphere.

The Sun’s atmosphere is divided into three major regions: the photosphere, the chromosphere, and the corona. The photosphere is the visible bit of the Sun, what we typically think of as the “surface.” It exhibits the behavior of rising gas and photons from the solar interior, as well as magnetic phenomena such as sunspots. The chromosphere is far less dense but hotter; the corona (“crown”) is still hotter and less dense, making an amorphous cloud around the sphere of the Sun. The chromosphere and corona are not seen without special equipment (except during total solar eclipses), but they can be studied with dedicated solar observatories.

To crack the problem of the super-hot corona, the researchers focused their attention on the chromosphere. Using data from SDO and SST, they measured the motion of various elements in the Sun’s atmosphere (iron, calcium, and helium) via the Doppler effect. These different gases all exhibited vortex behavior, aligned with the same spot on the photosphere. The authors identified 14 vortices during a single 55-minute observing run, which lasted for an average of about 13 minutes. Based on these statistics, they determined the Sun should have at least 11,000 vortices on its surface at any given time, at least during periods of low sunspot activity.

Due to the different wavelengths of light the observers used, they were able to map the shape and speed of the vortices as a function of height in the chromosphere. They found the familiar tornado shape: tapered at the base, widening at the top, reaching diameters of 1500 km. Each vortex was aligned along a single axis over a bright spot in the photosphere, which is the sign of a concentration of magnetic field lines.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: A giant solar tornado from last fall large enought to swallow up 5 planet Earths is the first of its kind caught on film, March 6, 2012. Courtesy of Slate / NASA /Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO).[end-div]


Rechargeable Nanotube-Based Solar Energy Storage

[div class=attrib]From Ars Technica:[end-div]

Since the 1970s, chemists have worked on storing solar energy in molecules that change state in response to light. These photoactive molecules could be the ideal solar fuel, as the right material should be transportable, affordable, and rechargeable. Unfortunately, scientists haven’t had much success.

One of the best examples in recent years, tetracarbonly-diruthenium fulvalene, requires the use of ruthenium, which is rare and expensive. Furthermore, the ruthenium compound has a volumetric energy density (watt-hours per liter) that is several times smaller than that of a standard lithium-ion battery.
Alexie Kolpak and Jeffrey Grossman from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology propose a new type of solar thermal fuel that would be affordable, rechargeable, thermally stable, and more energy-dense than lithium-ion batteries. Their proposed design combines an organic photoactive molecule, azobenzene, with the ever-popular carbon nanotube.

Before we get into the details of their proposal, we’ll quickly go over how photoactive molecules store solar energy. When a photoactive molecule absorbs sunlight, it undergoes a conformational change, moving from the ground energy state into a higher energy state. The higher energy state is metastable (stable for the moment, but highly susceptible to energy loss), so a trigger—voltage, heat, light, etc.—will cause the molecule to fall back to the ground state. The energy difference between the higher energy state and the ground state (termed ?H) is then discharged. A useful photoactive molecule will be able to go through numerous cycles of charging and discharging.

The challenge in making a solar thermal fuel is finding a material that will have both a large ?H and large activation energy. The two factors are not always compatible. To have a large ?H, you want a big energy difference between the ground and higher energy state. But you don’t want the higher energy state to be too energetic, as it would be unstable. Instability means that the fuel will have a small activation energy and be prone to discharging its stored energy too easily.

Kolpak and Grossman managed to find the right balance between ?H and activation energy when they examined computational models of azobenzene (azo) bound to carbon nanotubes (CNT) in azo/CNT nanostructures.

[div class=attrib]More from theSource here.[end-div]

Solar power from space: Beam it down, Scotty

[div class=attrib]From the Economist:[end-div]

THE idea of collecting solar energy in space and beaming it to Earth has been around for at least 70 years. In “Reason”, a short story by Isaac Asimov that was published in 1941, a space station transmits energy collected from the sun to various planets using microwave beams.

The advantage of intercepting sunlight in space, instead of letting it find its own way through the atmosphere, is that so much gets absorbed by the air. By converting it to the right frequency first (one of the so-called windows in the atmosphere, in which little energy is absorbed) a space-based collector could, enthusiasts claim, yield on average five times as much power as one located on the ground.

The disadvantage is cost. Launching and maintaining suitable satellites would be ludicrously expensive. But perhaps not, if the satellites were small and the customers specialised. Military expeditions, rescuers in disaster zones, remote desalination plants and scientific-research bases might be willing to pay for such power from the sky. And a research group based at the University of Surrey, in England, hopes that in a few years it will be possible to offer it to them.

This summer, Stephen Sweeney and his colleagues will test a laser that would do the job which Asimov assigned to microwaves. Certainly, microwaves would work: a test carried out in 2008 transmitted useful amounts of microwave energy between two Hawaiian islands 148km (92 miles) apart, so penetrating the 100km of the atmosphere would be a doddle. But microwaves spread out as they propagate. A collector on Earth that was picking up power from a geostationary satellite orbiting at an altitude of 35,800km would need to be spread over hundreds of square metres. Using a laser means the collector need be only tens of square metres in area.

[div class=attrib]More from theSource here.[end-div]

A Solar Grand Plan

[div class=attrib]From Scientific American:[end-div]

By 2050 solar power could end U.S. dependence on foreign oil and slash greenhouse gas emissions.

High prices for gasoline and home heating oil are here to stay. The U.S. is at war in the Middle East at least in part to protect its foreign oil interests. And as China, India and other nations rapidly increase their demand for fossil fuels, future fighting over energy looms large. In the meantime, power plants that burn coal, oil and natural gas, as well as vehicles everywhere, continue to pour millions of tons of pollutants and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere annually, threatening the planet.

Well-meaning scientists, engineers, economists and politicians have proposed various steps that could slightly reduce fossil-fuel use and emissions. These steps are not enough. The U.S. needs a bold plan to free itself from fossil fuels. Our analysis convinces us that a massive switch to solar power is the logical answer.

  • A massive switch from coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power plants to solar power plants could supply 69 percent of the U.S.’s electricity and 35 percent of its total energy by 2050.
  • A vast area of photovoltaic cells would have to be erected in the Southwest. Excess daytime energy would be stored as compressed air in underground caverns to be tapped during nighttime hours.
  • Large solar concentrator power plants would be built as well.
  • A new direct-current power transmission backbone would deliver solar electricity across the country.
  • But $420 billion in subsidies from 2011 to 2050 would be required to fund the infrastructure and make it cost-competitive.

[div class=attrib]More from theSource here.[end-div]