When the sun launched a moderate, or M-class, solar flare May 17,2012, it was still one of the largest eruptions seen since lateJanuary when our star began to rouse from an anomalously long quietperiod. But the event was not just an additional solar wake-up call; itproduced something that has the solar physics community puzzled andscientists from the University of New Hampshire poised to analyze asingular dataset gathered during the event by a European satellitecalled PAMELA - short for Payload for Antimatter Matter Explorationand Light-nuclei Astrophysics. The puzzle is this: The solar event created what is known as aground-level enhancement (GLE), which is a blast of high-energyparticles registered by ground stations on Earth after a very largesolar flare and/or another explosive mechanism known as a coronalmass ejection (CME). The May 17 GLE lit up ground stations (neutron monitors) all overthe world for the first time in nearly six years, but given thestature, or lack thereof, of the solar explosions, there shouldhave been no GLE at all. |
Says James Ryan, an astrophysicist at the UNH Space Science Center(SSC) and UNH co-investigator on the PAMELA mission, "This solarflare was most unimpressive and the associated CME was onlyslightly more energetic. And looking at it optically, it wasremarkably dim, it was, all things considered, a ninety-eight poundweakling of solar events." Enter PAMELA, which as luck would have it "looks" at an energyrange of particles not seen by any other spacecraft. The dataPAMELA recorded on the May 17 solar event should provide scientistswith an unprecedented view of how the high-energy particles morphedthrough time and space, and this should provide insight into themysterious appearance of the GLE. PAMELA is a mission carried out by a European collaboration led byItaly and Russia together with German and Swedish institutes, andcollaborators in the U.S. at UNH, New Mexico State University, andNASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
Launched in 2006 and dedicatedto studying cosmic rays, just two weeks before the most recentblast from the sun PAMELA was retasked to focus on solar physicsdue to the sun's ever-increasing activity. For decades, there has been strong debate as to what complexprocesses produce the extremely energetic particles that areregistered on the ground; is it the shockwave in front of a CME ordo the particles come from the solar flare itself? The most recentevent has the potential to be a "real bellwether" according to Ryanbecause it will allow the study of the evolution of the flare fromlow to high energies without interruption. "The PAMELA satellite provides us with a bridge that has neverexisted before," says Ryan, "a bridge between solar energeticparticles measured by other spacecraft and those made on the groundby neutron monitors, like the one we've operated here in Durham fordecades. Spanning that gap has opened up new opportunities." The opportunity for Ryan and his SSC colleague Ulisse Bravar, UNH'sprincipal investigator for the PAMELA mission, is to begin doingthe detailed analysis of the May 17 data that will provide thescientific community with fresh insights.
UNH is funded for the PAMELA mission through the National ScienceFoundation's Solar, Heliospheric, and Interplanetary Environment(SHINE) program for the very purpose of analyzing data from thesesorts of solar events because, notes Ryan, "this is an untappedcapability of PAMELA. The NSF saw the value in getting this dataand of having UNH, which has a strong history in solar physics,lead that effort.".
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