September, 2014Archive for

Solar Flares – Should we be Concerned?

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Massive Solar Flare

Recently Scientists released a report in which it was discovered that a massive solar storm narrowly missed Earth in 2012. This would’ve likely had massive, widespread effects on our way of life, potentially causing more than $2 trillion dollars worth of damage. To understand how this could happen we must first understand what a solar storm consists of.

Solar Flares and Coronal Mass Ejections

A solar flare is a massive burst of electromagnetic radiation on the sun’s surface. Although the exact cause of a solar flare is not known, it most likely involves charged electrons being accelerated rapidly with plasma in the sun. This most often happens in locations on the sun’s surface, at which the magnetic field of the sun becomes closely looped and disconnected, creating a helical magnetic field.

Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) often follow solar flares, as they are strongly tied to the magnetic field. CMEs are notable in that addition to electromagnetic radiation being sent into space; it also sends a massive amount of charged matter as plasma. While radiation reaches us within 9 minutes, the plasma takes anywhere from one to five days. It is these charged particles that have the greatest effect to us on Earth.

Artist rendering of a CME heading for Earth, and how Earth’s magnetic field is flexed.

CME Effects

Weak CMEs that reach Earth have little effect on human technology, and are most commonly associated with an increase in the Northern Lights. Also known as the Aurora, these multicolored lights occur at the Earth’s poles when charged particles interact with the polar ends of our magnetic field.

If a CME is more powerful, significant disruptions with technology can occur. When the charged matter of a CME reaches Earth, the matter flexes the Earth’s magnetic field around itself. On the opposite side of the Earth, the magnetic field is stretched out into space, and eventually snaps back. This snap causes significant electrical disturbances, which can in turn disrupt electronics on earth. Power transformers can overload from the sudden increase in electrical current, which can lead to long-term blackouts over very large areas. Additionally, GPS satellites can be affected by CMEs, causing inaccurate or dropped GPS readings.

“Where is everybody?” The Fermi Paradox

Sunday, September 7th, 2014

A paradox has been puzzling astronomers for decades.

In 1961 Frank Drake proposed his now famous Drake Equation, which is a thought experiment to simulate calculating the expected number of intelligent civilizations in the galaxy. It uses estimated values for things like the average number of planets around a star and how often life will form on a habitable planet. Though most of these values were complete guesses (some still are), we’re getting better at estimating the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence in our cosmic neighborhood.

As it turns out, we expect there to be thousands of civilizations on various planets throughout the Milky Way. Many of whom should have the ability to communicate and possibly even travel through the immense distances between solar systems. And yet, despite the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) searching for signs of this life for many decades, we have no evidence of life anywhere else in the Galaxy. This is known as the Fermi Paradox after Enrico Fermi, the physicist who first proposed it.

Dozens of explanations for this paradox have been proposed over the years, but the true answer still eludes scientists. Let’s take a look at some of the common thoughts, as well as a few of the more curious solutions.

We are essentially alone

The most obvious explanation of this paradox is that the assumption of extraterrestrial intelligence currently existing in the galaxy is incorrect. This could be the case with a few different explanations:

  • Life is extremely rare to begin in the first place. Earth was a rare case where the necessary ingredients for life was a fluke, and is not a common occurrence on other planets.
  • Simple life is common on habitable planets, but rarely does it evolve into complex organisms, much less sentient, intelligent life that attempts communication.
  • Intelligent life does arise fairly often, however it destroys itself shortly after becoming spacefaring, thus the likelihood of another intelligent species currently able to communicate with us is low.

In any of these scenarios, the likelihood of finding evidence for complex life on other planets is extremely low. We may very well be the only sentient creatures in the galaxy.

We can’t find them

The Aricebo observatory in Peurto Rico

Alternative to the fact that we may be alone, is the idea that although intelligent life is relatively common in the universe, it difficult (or impossible) to find evidence of this. This assumes life, given the chance, will almost always evolve into more intelligent beings, eventually reaching a point where communication or space travel becomes possible. A number of explanations to this scenario have been proposed:

  • The distance between Earth and the nearest intelligent life is so far that communication is essentially impossible.
  • Even if a species possesses the technology to spread throughout the galaxy, it may not find it economical. Thus they remain in their local celestial neighborhood.
  • We have not been searching long enough, or looking for the right clues. Humans have been listening to only certain radio waves, and only for about 60 years. It is possible extraterrestrials are using something other than radio frequencies to communicate, such as gamma rays , or we do not understand how the information is formatted in their signals.
  • Earth is not as ideal for life as “superhabitable” planets, thus the effort of another species trying to communicate with us isn’t worthwhile.
  • Extra Terrestrials may not have any incentive to reach out to other species. This could be because they are solely interested in themselves, or perhaps because they don’t want to be found. In this scenario, a species may actually avoid detection for fear of a hostile engagement with another species.
  • Everybody is listening, and nobody is talking. SETI primarily focuses on listening to the airwaves for indications of intelligence, but does not actively transmit its own intelligent transmissions. The same could be happening for a majority of other beings.
  • Earth could be some sort of experiment, either by an extremely intelligent alien species, or entirely a computer simulation. This is known as the Planetarium Hypothesis.
  • Perhaps we have already been visited by aliens, and are either A) unknown to us, or B) occurred in the distant past, so we have no evidence.