The Sun Also Surprises: Spots, Flares, and Coronal Mass Ejections

Sunspot activity in Solar Cycle 24 is predicted to peak in May 2013. A revised estimate of 56 rather than 90 sunspots will make Solar Cycle 24 the least active in one hundred years, but despite fewer sunspots, the Sun’s activity can still cause problems with satellites in near space and, potentially, with telecommunications and GPS on Earth as well.

A solar storm in 1859 created problems with telegraph systems. Quebec’s blackout of March 1989 was the result of a massive solar flare. Less troublesome than telegraph anomalies and power grid failures, the Northern and Southern Lights result from solar storms. The same 1859 solar flare that shocked telegraph operators and caused telegraph paper to burst into flames created auroras so bright that people could read newspapers by their light.

Sunspots are large, but to give you an idea of just how large they are, EarthSky, in an article titled “Storm Effects May Give Earth A Glancing Blow On May 14”  includes an illustration comparing Earth to recent sunspots.

Stanford Solar Center is a comprehensive classroom resource for teachers of all subjects who are using the Sun as a subject. The site has sections on the science of the Sun, space weather monitors, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), solar art and literature, ancient observations, and solar folklore. Sections for students and educators feature multi-disciplinary, interactive exercises and activities for students in grades 4-12. Students and teachers can build spectroscopes and pinhole cameras for observing the Sun, listen to solar music, make a sundial, and other cross-curricular projects. Many sections have associated lessons and activities. Teachers will find quizzes. A resource page links to off-site solar astronomy resources.

The Exploratorium’s Space Weather Research Explorer is a guide to coronal holes, solar flares, coronal mass ejections, solar wind, magnetosphere, and auroras. Each section has images, video, and current data on the Sun’s activity. A final section Space Weather And You describes how space weather can affect satellites, astronauts, and electronic technology on Earth. It also links the Maunder Minimum, a 65-year period of little solar activity, of the late 17th century to the Little Ice Age. Try predicting space weather using five different models.

Heliophysics is the study of the Sun and its Interaction with Earth and the Solar System. NASA’s Heliophysics Division investigates what causes the sun to vary, how the Earth and the heliosphere respond, and what the impacts on humanity are. The Sun-Earth Connection: Heliophysics describes 19 operating missions investigating different aspects of the Sun, Earth and Solar System. Links on the index page take users to each mission’s site. Particularly relevant to the study of sunspot activity are the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO), Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP), and Hinode (Solar-B). Heliophysic’s Multimedia section provides brief informative videos and many image galleries. The Solar Storms FAQs feature text and video covering sunspots, solar flares, space weather impacts, and more.

Solar Flare Theory is from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and answers the questions what is a solar flare, why we should study them, and how they affect humanity. Assemble a paper Model of the RHESSI Spacecraft is an activity for students and teachers in grades 5-8. A crossword puzzle is based on the material available on the website.

Our Very Own Star: The Sun is an easy-to-read coloring book for students in grades K-4 that teaches about solar flares and sunspots. (PDF 20 pages, 102 KB)

Two resources from the U.S. Department of Energy have lessons and resources for K-4 teachers and students: Energy From the Sun Teacher and Student Guides (7 Activities) and The Sun and Its Energy (14 Activities).

And don’t forget NASA’s brobdingnagian website. The Find Teaching Materials page is a fast way to locate lessons and activities for grades K-12. Search by term and narrow by grade level, resource type, and subject.

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