This month's guest panelist, Alma Ruiz-Velasco, received her PhD in Astrophysics from the University of Guanajuato. Her Doctorate and Masters theses were on late-stage stars and Gamma-ray bursts, respectively - making her an excellent candidate for us to team with to discuss the 'science behind the sci-fi' of our Broken Crown event.
Alma also has her own Spanish blog, which you can check out here: http://elespinazodelanoche.wordpress.com
A deadly solar flare grills the Earth, erasing all living beings from its surface. This fictitious event-named the Broken Crown-marks the starting point of Surviving Mars
, the first game that invites the curious player to explore our Solar System as the saga continues in Escaping Titan
and Colonizing Kepler
. But, what are the odds of such tragedy? We survived 2012, but now that the Sun approaches its maximum period of activity we wonder if the apocalypses was not only delayed by a couple of months.The Solar Cycle
The Sun is an average star going through a very stable stage in the middle of its billion-year life. It has a well-known cycle of 11 years characterized by the number of sunspots appearing on its surface. The more sunspots visible, the more active the Sun is. Sunspots host strong magnetic fields. When the magnetic fields lines of two or several sunspots get too close, they fuse in an explosion that releases the energy stored in the parent magnetic fields. The process, known as magnetic reconnection, produces a flare of electromagnetic radiation that ranges from radio to gamma-ray radiation. These Solar Flares are often accompanied by Coronal Mass Ejections (CME) shooting a torrent of charged particles like protons, electrons an even heavy ions.
Depending on the strength, Solar Flares are classified as either C, M or X- class flares. Each Class is sub-divided from 1 to 9, except for X-class flares which because they are strongest of the three classes they can exceed the sub-division limit of 9. These classes do not have a linear relationship. Instead, a X-class flare is ten times more powerful than a M-class and a hundred times a C-class. Also note there are weaker classes of flares labeled A and B-class, but these have no detectable consequences on Earth.
Solar Flares are unpredictable. Nobody knows when they will burst out, and since the magnetic reconnection process is not fully understood, the amount of energy released is surprising to some extent. A flare takes about two days to reach Earth, and when this happens, the charged particles are trapped in the Earth's magnetosphere to produce beautiful northern lights. Strong M and X- class flares produce geomagnetic storms that affects satellites and power grids. Astronauts are more exposed to storms and should take further precautions.
Down on the ground, the Earth's magnetic shield keep us safe… most of the time. It was recently discovered that the magnetosphere is not impenetrable. Magnetic field lines coming from the Sun with an inverse direction of those of the Earth's can open a temporal crack and allow charged particles to get in.Worst Case Scenario
A direct hit of an exceptionally powerful solar flare could produce a relativistic-proton shower and rip the Earth's magnetic field. Without its protection, life on the day-side would be endangered. Additionally, a large amount of gamma-rays could disturb the ozone layer letting ultra-violet rays penetrate.
Enduring or consecutive flares exposing humans to the hazardous radiation would leave a significant fraction of the population sick or dying, triggering an world-wide health crisis. Animals and plants will be affected too with awful consequences: in a few months we will run out of food.
With the next solar maximum due to hit in the fall of 2013 we can expect more flares, Coronal Mass Ejections, Geomagnetic storms, and of course, more auroras!, but non of these from the deadly kind. The current solar cycle seems undeveloped compared to previous ones. NASA predicts a rather quiet behavior and considers this the smallest sunspot cycle since 1906.Current sunspot cycle. Observations (solid lines) and predictions (dotted lines) credit: NASA.
In spite of its closeness, the Sun still holds some dangerous surprises. Solar physics are a complicated matter. Yet very unlikely, a Broken Crown is not impossible. With NASA predicting 2013 to be one of the lighter solar maximums in recent cycles, the Broken Crown storyline will have to take place during a future cycle maxima.