Watching weather here on Earth is a common practice, but watching weather on the surface of the sun – the side opposite Earth – is hardly routine, and a Texas A&M University researcher is trying to capture as many images as possible so that scientists can learn more about solar activity.
Mark Lemmon, an atmospheric sciences professor at Texas A&M is a team member of the Mars rover Curiosity’s Mastcam, the camera that usually images the Martian terrain. Occasionally, Mastcam images the Sun to study Martian weather by seeing how much solar power is coming in. As for that weather on the sun, it’s in the form of sunspots that can hurl solar flares millions of miles into space, and some of these have the potential to disrupt satellite communications on Earth with their massive amounts of energy.
“For the last few months, weather watching on Mars has turned into weather watching for the solar system,” Lemmon explains.
“Sunspots show where potential solar storms are developing, and Curiosity has been watching them from the far side of the sun. We have seen storms that launched into space as coronal mass ejections — one of these hit Earth as a geomagnetic storm in April – and we can see another big active area coming around right now.”
Two NASA satellites – STEREO (solar terrestrial relations observatory) A and STEREO B – give a unique view of the sun-Earth system by orbiting in tandem, but neither one has communicated with Earth since April. So when Lemmon noticed that the Mastcam on Curiosity was imaging spots on the side of the sun not seen by Earth, the Mastcam was able to fill in the missing information usually provided by the satellites.
“It’s been great to contribute to our understanding of space weather by watching the weather on the far side of the sun, but we look forward to getting some awe-inspiring views of the sun that STEREO can provide,” Lemmon notes.
“Information about sunspots is helpful in predicting space-weather effects of solar emissions related to sunspots. Intense space weather can degrade telephone communications, broadcasting and other electronic technology on Earth. Also, sunspots produce the vivid Northern Lights, the aurora borealis, and in late June, the lights were visible from Virginia to North Texas, a rare occurrence that far south.”
Curiosity has been operating on Mars since August of 2012 and has sent back more than 300,000 images of the Martian terrain plus valuable information about climate and geology and Mars’ ability to host human activity.
Contact: Mark Lemmon at (979) 458-8098 or email@example.com or Karen Riedel, College of Geosciences, at (979) 845-0910 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Keith Randall, News & Information Services, at (979) 845-4644 or email@example.com