The sun in stereo

Monday 6 November 2006

Scientists from the University of St Andrews are involved in a space mission which aims to learn more about violent eruptions from the Sun, which can trigger magnetic storms on Earth.

Professor Eric Priest and Dr Duncan Mackay are part of the UK scientific team behind the mission which will gather information on so-called ‘space weather’ through the first stereoscopic movies of the Sun ever made.

The two scientists from the University’s School of Mathematics & Statistics are closely involved in the STEREO mission, recently launched by NASA from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and which hopes to make new discoveries about the large-scale dynamic nature of the Sun.

The mission consists of two near- identical space satellites orbiting the Sun, with one of them moving ahead of the Earth while the other trails behind it, thus providing ‘stereo vision’.

Professor Priest said, “STEREO will study violent eruptions from the Sun called Coronal Mass Ejections and will for the first time be able to follow them in three dimensions on their voyage from the Sun to the Earth.”

Coronal mass ejections are driven by magnetic forces and may reach the Earth after a couple of days. They interact with the Earth’s magnetic field and are part of what is called “space weather¿. They create huge clouds of energetic particles which can trigger magnetic storms and produce the aurora borealis. But occasionally they can also disrupt power grids and satellite communications.

The energetic particles may be hazardous to astronauts and there may be increased radiation for crew and passengers on high-flying airplanes on polar routes. Thus, forecasting such eruptions will enable scientists to take preventative action in future.

Professor Priest continued, “At present, solar observatories look at Coronal Mass Ejections head on and so it is difficult to determine their position and direction. But STEREO will be able to view them from two widely spaced locations and so will see their three-dimensional structure and path accurately for the first time. In turn this will lead to much better forecasts of space weather.”

Dr Mackay, a recently appointed lecturer in Applied Mathematics, added, “We and our research students and postdocs hope to learn why these eruptions start and how they propagate through space.”




PROFESSOR ERIC PRIEST: 01334 463709, email [email protected]

DR DUNCAN MACKAY: 01334 463760, email [email protected]



CAPTION: Dr Mackay and Professor Priest with a schematic of the STEREO satellites viewing the Sun.

Issued by Beattie Media – on behalf of the University of St Andrews

Contact Gayle Cook, Press Officer on 01334 467227 / 462529, mobile 07900 050 103, or email gec3@st-

Ref: Sun in stereo 061106.doc

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