A new method could predict solar flares more than a day before they occur, giving enough time to protect satellites, power grids and astronauts from potentially dangerous radiation.
The system works by measuring differences in gamma radiation emitted when atoms in radioactive elements decay or lose energy. This rate of decay is widely believed to be constant, but recent findings challenge that long-accepted rule.
The new detection technique is based on a hypothesis that radioactive decay rates are influenced by solar activity, possibly streams of subatomic particles called solar neutrinos, the journal Astroparticle Physics reports.
This influence can wax and wane due to seasonal changes in the Earth’s distance from the Sun and also during solar flares, according to the hypothesis, which is supported with data published in a dozen research papers since it was proposed in 2006, said Ephraim Fischbach, Purdue University professor of physics.
Fischbach and Jere Jenkins, nuclear engineer and director of radiation labs in the Purdue School of Nuclear Engineering, are leading the research to study the phenomenon and possibly develop a new warning system, according to a Purdue statement.
Jenkins, monitoring a detector in his lab in 2006, discovered that the decay rate of a radioactive sample changed slightly beginning 39 hours before a large solar flare.
Since then, researchers have been examining similar variation in decay rates before solar flares, as well as those resulting from Earth’s orbit around the Sun and changes in solar rotation and activity.
The new observations support previous work by Jenkins and Fischbach to develop a method for predicting solar flares.