What If the Sun’s Magnetic Field Flipped And Nobody Noticed?

The “wavy sheet” of the sun’s electrical current. Image hosted on NASA.gov.

More specifically, the sun’s magnetic field went topsy-turvy sometime in November or December of 2013, according to this USA Today post.  That sounds bad, doesn’t it?  But the post notes that the sun’s magnetic field flips about every 11 years.  And of course, everything still seems to be working in spite of the most current flip.  So much so, most people probably didn’t notice the sun’s magnetic field had flipped, unless they happened on a news feed about it or were monitoring it to begin with.

The sun’s poles, the north and south, basically switch positions, but scientists aren’t worried, as this is part of the sun’s solar cycle.  If you wish to know more about it, just watch the video below.

The concern, spacewise, is about just how does an event like that affect satellites and their operations?  The answer seems to be:  not very much.  There’s a “current sheet” encompassing the solar system that the sun produces, an electrical current coming from the sun, which protects satellites from cosmic rays. The picture at the top of the page represents what the sheet might look like with the sun at the center of it.  Cosmic rays are very energetic sub-atomic particles coming from the rest of the galaxy into our solar system.  They can be very bad for satellite electronics if they happen to “hit” part of a satellite’s system.

Those rays, when they encounter the sun’s current sheet, tend to follow along the sheet’s “wrinkles.”  During solar minimum, when the sun isn’t as active in its solar cycle, the current sheet is flatter, but during more active times, such as the magnetic flipping of the sun’s poles, the current sheet ripples or wrinkles as a result.  NASA says the satellites might be better protected around the time of the flip, because the added “wrinkliness” of the sun’s current sheet resulting from the flip probably acts as a better barrier against fast-moving cosmic rays.

Not that satellite operators have much of a choice if something were to happen from the flip.  As far as I know, there’s no real active way to protect current systems in space from such an occurrence. If that concern were to be addressed, if there had been concern, then the best time to do so would have been during the design of the satellite to cope with sun-flip related problems before the satellite was launched into space.  And satellite builders already do some of that with attempts to minimize how much energized particles will affect their spacecraft.

So while a flipped magnetic field of the sun sounds bad, it turns out humanity has lived with the sun’s solar cycle for as long as we’ve lived on Earth.  Probably too late for freaking out about that now…


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