Scientific Colloquium
December 6, 2013
NOTE: Building 34, Room W150

"The Solar Cycle Conundrum"

We have known for 170 years that sunspots come and go on a roughly 11-year timescale. Despite many efforts to develop empirical or physical models of the solar cycle, we have failed to find a method of predicting the timing or amplitude of an upcoming solar cycle with any degree of confidence. While this was once considered an interesting intellectual exercise to test how well we understood the inner workings of the Sun, it now has become an important economic issue as our dependence on space technology increases. The vulnerability of our space assets to space weather effects increases with the solar activity levels that are driven by the solar cycle.

The Sun is a magnetic variable star so we will look at the basic characteristics of the solar dynamo that have to be reproduced by any viable solar cycle model. Then we will briefly discuss some of the techniques used to predict solar activity and see how well they have done so far in predicting the current solar cycle. Using extended observations of the Sun’s magnetic field from SOHO and various ground-based observatories in conjunction with coronal imaging has led us to find some new patterns in solar activity that have shown promise in predicting certain aspects of the solar cycle. One of the main problems we face in understanding the solar cycle is that the Sun is under sampled. We will discuss a potential new solar mission that would provide new insights into the solar cycle.

About the speaker:

Dr. Keith Strong attained his undergraduate degree in Astronomy at University College, London. He studied X-ray spectroscopy for his Ph.D. thesis at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory. He flew two sounding rockets from Woomera as part of his research. He was a candidate for payload specialist on the Spacelab II mission. That is where he met Loren Acton who hired him to work at the Lockheed Palo Alto Research Laboratory after he got his Ph.D. in 1979.

He started as a data analyst on the Solar Maximum Mission project and was appointed the U.S. Principal Investigator of the SMM X-ray Polychromator experiment in 1984. After SMM “came home,” he worked in Japan on the Yohkoh program helping to set up the SXT scientific observing program. In 1995 he became manager of the Lockheed Martin Solar & Astrophysics Laboratory, where he was part of the TRACE team. He chaired the 2000 Sun-Earth Connection Roadmap Committee that put the “Living With a Star” program in place. The laboratory won several solar instrument contracts for STEREO, Hinode, and SDO while branching out into Earth Sciences (Triana and the GOES-R Lightning Mapper), Astronomy (JWST NIRCam and GLAST) and space weather monitoring (NOAA GOES-N SXI and the GOES-R SUVI instruments).

He retired from Lockheed Martin in 2007 and has been doing solar research at NASA GSFC ever since, most recently through an appointment at the University of Maryland, College Park, Astronomy Department. His chief interests at the moment are the solar cycle, the Sun’s role in climate change, and education and public outreach. As a hobby he runs a YouTube channel that mainly details daily solar activity, regularly updates global climate results, and sometimes debunks end-of-the-world scaremongering. His channel has over 900 videos with nearly 2 million views and over 7,000 subscribers.

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