Shedding light on the Sun
As questions abound about the Earth’s closest star, scientists are seeking answers critical to forecasting solar flares that threaten satellites and other electronics.
By ANTHONY KING
For most of humankind’s history, it has been hard to explain the Sun as anything other than a powerful deity.
For instance, the ancient Greek god Helios – the personification of the Sun – raced his chariot across the sky to create night and day, whereas the ancient Egyptians worshipped their falcon-headed sun god, Ra, as creator of the universe.
Since then, science has revealed that, for example, the Sun on average turns on its axis once every 28 days. But at its equator, the hot plasma ball rotates once every 25 days, while it takes around 35 days at the poles, creating a swirling soup of piping hot plasma.
Nonetheless, the power of the Sun can still offer surprises, with blasts fierce enough to fry communication satellites or electronics on Earth. Scientists warn of more powerful solar flares as a peak of activity approaches in late 2024 and early 2025.
‘There is this turbulent motion inside our star, called convection, that is a bit like how water wrinkles just before it boils,’ said Professor Sacha Brun, director of research at CEA Paris-Saclay, part of the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission.
An infamous magnetic storm that hit Earth in September 1859, known as the Carrington Event, triggered spectacular auroras far from polar regions and sizzled telegraph systems around the world.
There have been more since. In 1989, a geomagnetic storm caused a blackout in Quebec, Canada, according to Brun.
Greater knowledge about the Sun is needed to predict and understand such events.
That swirling ball of hydrogen and helium is also unimaginably hot – with core temperatures of 15 million °C. And it’s ginormous – more than 1 million Earths fit inside the Sun.
Its peaceful presence on a summer’s day belies the intense nuclear reactions at its core that generate vast amounts of energy. The Sun is a churning ball of plasma, with gases so hot that electrons are booted out of atoms, generating intense magnetic explosions from its surface that spew billions of tonnes of matter into space.
As it spins, the Sun’s mechanical energy turns into magnetic energy – a bit like the dynamo on a bicycle light, where pedal motion is converted into magnetic energy.
On the Sun, twisty ribbons of magnetism rise and break out as sunspots, dark patches at the surface where the magnetic field is 3 000 times more intense than in the surrounding areas.
Sunspots can trigger those solar flares that damage electrical equipment. But this activity isn’t constant.
‘The magnetism of the Sun is variable over an 11-year cycle,’ said Brun, an astrophysicist.
Over that cycle, coronal mass ejections rise in frequency, from one every three days to an average of three per day at its peak.
‘As we go further into the cycle, more outbursts will emerge from the Sun,’ Brun said. ‘People don’t realise that the Earth bathes in the turbulent magnetic atmosphere of our star.’
So there’s an obvious need to anticipate when such solar storms approach. For example, a solar flare in February 2022 knocked out 40 SpaceX commercial satellites by destroying their electronics.
Those energetic particles take just 15 minutes to reach Earth from the Sun. The threat posed by magnetic clouds usually takes a few days, offering more time to brace for any onslaught.
Brun co-leads an EU-funded project called WHOLE SUN to understand the interior and exterior layers of the only star in the Earth’s solar system.
Running for seven years through April 2026, the initiative focuses on the inner turbulence of the Sun and the complex physics that turns the inner turmoil into magnetism in the outer layers.
This requires the most powerful supercomputers in the world. Yet forecasting solar flares means that scientists gain greater understanding of the insides of the Sun.
A star is born
What about the distant past of the Sun? It has been around for 4.6 billion years – 100 million years before Earth. Where and how it was formed would seem to be an impenetrable mystery.
Not so, according to Dr Maria Lugaro at the Konkoly Observatory of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
Lugaro, an Italian astrophysicist, is researching this very question in the EU-funded RADIOSTAR project. It began in 2017 and runs through August this year.
‘We believe that the Sun wasn’t born alone, but was born in a star-forming region where there’s lots of stars,’ Lugaro said.
She is looking into this past by examining chemical fossils in meteorites today.
Radioactive atoms are unstable. They release energy and decay into so-called daughter atoms, over a certain length of time, which are measurable. The daughters are therefore chemical fossils, offering information about long-gone radioactive atoms.
Lugaro’s research suggests that the Sun originated in a stellar nursery that contained lots of siblings, including exploding stars – supernovas. But digging into the Sun’s history first requires finding meteorites, bits of rock formed before Earth.
These meteorites can contain traces of the radioactive atoms such as aluminium-26 and hafnium-182. It is known that these lived only a certain length of time. Together, traces of such atoms can be used as a radioactive clock to compute the age of the stars that made them, relative to the age of the Sun.
Some radioactive atoms are made in only certain types of stars. Their presence in meteorites helps to recreate a picture of the Sun’s birthplace, albeit one that’s up for debate.
It may be that the Sun was birthed amid dust and gas clouds in a tempestuous region alongside supergiant stars and exploding stars.
Within perhaps 20 million years, the different stars begin to make their own way out of the nursery. But things are far from being scientifically settled.
‘Every year there’s debate: is the Sun normal or is it a weird star?’ said Lugaro. ‘It’s quite fun.’
Research in this article was funded via the EU’s European Research Council (ERC). The article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
U.S. seeks to add India in NATO plus
There was a message received a few days ago: “In a significant development ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States, a powerful Congressional ‘Committee has recommended strengthening NATO Plus by including India.
NATO Plus, currently NATO Plus 5, is a security arrangement that brings together NATO and five aligned nations — Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Israel and South Korea – to boost global defence cooperation. Bringing India on board would facilitate ‘seamless intelligence sharing between these countries and India would access the latest military technology without much of a time lag.
The House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), led by Chairman Mike Gallagher and Ranking Member Raja Krishnamoorthi, overwhelmingly adopted a policy proposal to enhance Taiwan’s deterrence, including through strengthening NATO Plus to include India.
“Winning the strategic competition with the Chinese Communist Party and ensuring the security of Taiwan demands the United States strengthen ties to our allies and security partners, including India. Including India in NATO Plus security arrangements ‘would build upon the US and India’s close partnership to strengthen global security and deter the aggression of the CCP across the Indo-Pacific region,” the Select Committee recommended.”
The news is commented by M.K. Bhadrakumar, Indian Ambassador and prominent international observer:
“Indian lobbyists daydreaming about a military alliance with the United States are excited over the breaking news that the US House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the US has adopted a policy proposal to enhance the deterrence of Taiwan, which inter alia included strengthening of NATO Plus by the inclusion of India. Indeed, NATO Plus is a privileged group under the alliance umbrella comprising AUKUS members, plus Japan.
The breaking news on the Hill may have something to do with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming State Visit to the US — call it kite-flying or pressure tactic (or both). More likely, it undercuts India’s newfound enthusiasm for leading the Global South at world forums, which is posing headaches for Washington.
What has India got to do with ‘deterrence of Taiwan’, an entity we don’t even recognise?
Where’s the beef in NATO Plus which has neither an Article 5 nor can be an asset for Modi’s vision? Perhaps, the United Kingdom’s experience as the US’ closest ally provides some clues. Considering the word limit, let me quote just a few lines from a UK House of Commons Committee report dated March with recommendations to the Rishi Sunak government:
“The UK-US relationship in defence, security and intelligence is strong and enduring. Our Armed Forces have fought alongside in many campaigns post-1945 and continue to work together on development of both equipment and doctrine. Both countries benefit from the relationship: the UK benefits from US resources and economies of scale; the US from British niche capabilities, the UK’s global reach and its willingness to defend its values. However, defence industrial co-operation is often limited as a result of US defence export controls. Any failure to consult Allies before taking action can also have negative consequences, as was demonstrated by the Afghanistan withdrawal. Nevertheless, the joint approach in response to Russian actions in February 2022 demonstrates the value of the UK-US relationship.”
The analogy is patently insufficient since the UK lives and survives as world power thanks to the US, which is not the case with India.
Nonetheless, realism is needed. There is nothing like a free lunch in the US way of life and ‘interoperability’ within any NATO format will inevitably translate as living off US military hardware and dittoing US global strategy. Europe has learnt the bitter truth that nothing grows under a banyan tree. European defence remains a chimera, occasional captivating speeches by Emmanuel Macron notwithstanding.
Conceivably, the House Select Committee is a doormat for the US arms manufacturers. The paradox is, this move comes only a fortnight after the Indian Navy successfully test-fired the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile from its frontline stealth guided-missile destroyer INS Mormugao — that is, within 18 weeks of BrahMos air version being successfully test fired from the supersonic fighter aircraft Sukhoi 30 MK-I and within 15 weeks of India sealing a $375 million deal with the Philippines for supplying three batteries of BrahMos missile in what is by far the single most prestigious export order India’s defence industry ever secured.
NATO Plus will mean sudden death for India-Russia defence cooperation, notes M.K. Bhadrakumar.
South Africa, President Putin and the ICC
South Africa will grant diplomatic immunity to all international officials attending the BRICS summit in August, a move that will allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to avoid arrest.
South Africa’s International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor issued a gazette notice extending its Diplomatic Immunity and Privileges Act to the summit delegates.
“In accordance with the powers vested in me by Section 6(2) of the Diplomatic Immunities and Privileges Act, 2001, I hereby recognise the BRICS ministerial meetings to be held in Cape Town, South Africa, from 1 to 2 June 2023 and the 15th BRICS summit to be held in Johannesburg, South Africa from 22 to 24 August for the purpose of granting the immunities and privileges provided for in section 6(1) of the said Act as set out in the attached notice,” the gazette reads.
South Africa, which has close ties with Russia, has faced a diplomatic dilemma since the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant against Putin in March over alleged war crimes in Ukraine.
A signatory to the ICC, Pretoria is obliged to arrest Putin if he lands in South Africa.
Clayson Monyela, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation spokesperson, defended the move, saying such notices are issued every time there is an international meeting in the country.
The government notice, released on Monday, followed Deputy President Paul Mashatile’s announcement that he would meet with the inter-ministerial committee tasked with seeking solutions concerning South Africa’s options for Putin’s visit.
“This is a standard conferment of immunities that we do for all international conferences and summits held in South Africa irrespective of the level of participation,” said the department.
“The immunities are for the conference and not for specific individuals. They are meant to protect the conference and its attendees from the jurisdiction of the host country for the duration of the conference.
“These immunities do not override any warrant that may have been issued by any international tribunal against any attendee of the conference,” added the ministry.
Initially, President Cyril Ramaphosa had announced that the ruling party had resolved that the country would quit ICC before backtracking hours later citing a “communication error”.
South Africa, which has strong economic and trade relations with the US and Europe, has been walking a diplomatic tightrope over the Ukraine conflict, choosing to maintain a neutral stance on the Russia/Ukraine conflict.
The International Relations Department said it is also looking at a legal opinion on handling the ICC’s arrest warrant.
Authoritarian regime to strengthen in Poland
This autumn the elections will be in Poland. The ruling party clearly understands that it can lose the vote, so President Duda signed a law that allows him to start political repressions against the opposition. This is a reminiscent of the situation in the 30s of the last century, when authoritarian regimes began to strengthen in Europe. Now a similar process is starting in Poland. The opposition fears he has ‘set off a Polish civil war.’
Poland’s President Andrzej Duda said he will sign into law a controversial bill creating a commission to “investigate Russian influence on Polish politics that could ban people from public office for a decade,” writes POLITICO.
Duda and the Law and Justice (PiS) party government say it’s an effort to root out the Kremlin’s agents in Poland, but the opposition warns the commission is aimed at harassing political rivals — especially Donald Tusk, a former prime minister and European Council president who heads the opposition Civic Platform party — ahead of this fall’s pivotal parliamentary election.
The decision is likely to worsen already fraught relations between Warsaw and Brussels, with the European Commission freezing billions in EU pandemic recovery cash over worries the Polish government is backsliding on the bloc’s democratic principles.
The commission law was narrowly approved by the Polish parliament after a heated debate; Duda’s decision to rapidly sign it into law dashed hopes that he would distance himself from the law.
Duda did say he would also send the law to be examined by the Constitutional Tribunal — a top court dominated by PiS loyalists — but that won’t prevent the commission from beginning work.
“People have the right to know,” Duda said in a broadcast to announce his decision, adding: “The public should form its own opinion on how… those elected in general elections… understood the interests of the Republic of Poland, whether those interests were actually properly executed.”
The opposition denounced the commission as a political weapons designed to cow PiS’s rivals ahead of an election it might lose.
“President Andrzej Duda has seriously weakened our country today, internally and externally; he has decided to set off a Polish civil war,” said Szymon Hołownia, head of the Poland 2050 opposition party.
Borys Budka, one of the leaders of Civic Platform, warned that anyone joining the commission should face prosecution.
“This commission is not supposed to explain anything, decide anything, judge anything, it is only supposed to be a hammer against the opposition,” he said.
The Left opposition party called for Duda to be put before the State Tribunal, a body that is supposed to judge politicians.
The commission has also been noted by the United States, Poland’s key NATO military ally.
“The U.S. government shares concerns about laws that could appear to allow for the preempting of voters’ ability to vote for the candidates of their choice outside of a clearly defined process in independent courts,” U.S. Ambassador to Poland Mark Brzezinski told Polish television.
The nine-member commission will be chosen by parliament where PiS has a slim majority; several opposition parties have said they will boycott the procedure.
It will examine actions that were taken “under Russian influence” from 2007 to 2022 — a period covering the 2007-2015 governments of the Civic Platform party led by Tusk as well as the current PiS administration.
Critics say the commission violates the constitution as its functioning isn’t precisely defined, its verdicts are final, and members of the commission are shielded from any criminal responsibility. All of the country’s intelligence, police, prosecutors and other official bodies are mandated to cooperate with it, and there is no set procedure for deciding who it will investigate.
It can decide to ban people for 10 years from jobs involving the spending of public funds — which would block them from running for office.
“Duda has signed a law allowing the parliament to create a commission that will usurp the functions of courts, prosecutors and special services,” tweeted Ben Stanley, an associate professor at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw.
Tusk has called for people to hold a mass protest in Warsaw on June 4 — the anniversary of the 1989 partially free election that ended communist rule in Poland.
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