When you sign up for an Introduction to Astrophysics class, you probably don’t expect your data collection to go on for 11 years.
This year’s cohort of PHY417 Intro to Astrophysics students, however, are coming into the course at the very beginning of solar cycle 25. A solar cycle is a period of approximately 11 years where the sun's stormy behavior builds to a maximum threshold and its magnetic field reverses.
SJU's Physics Lab Coordinator Mark Scafonas, Ph.D., is the instructor of PHY417 and he is eager to seize this moment in time for his astrophysics students.
“This new solar cycle is really a perfect time for us to relaunch Intro to Astrophysics,” says Scafonas. “Right now, the sun looks kind of boring — there’s very little activity going on and you see a pretty uniform surface area. But sunspot activity will soon begin increasing.”
PHY417 students will be viewing the sun through a solar telescope and using a SuperSID Monitor to detect changes in the Earth's ionosphere caused by solar storms. In the coming months, an increase in sunspot activity will mean Scafonas’s students will see dark spots, coronal mass ejections, solar flares and more through the solar telescope.
“It’s going to be pretty cool,” notes Scafonas. “It’s going to influence space weather and, ultimately, impact Earth.”
After moving through the foundational aspects of the curriculum, this class will be the first to build an antenna for the SuperSID to detect and monitor disturbances in the Earth’s ionosphere due to solar activity during cycle 25.
Historically, waves like this have the potential for incredible impact on Earth’s infrastructure and have caused some of the most memorable blackouts of the power grid.
“Two-hundred years ago, a solar cycle wouldn’t have had this kind of effect,” says Scafonas. “We didn't have satellites, we didn't have large power grids. But once all these technologies started developing we began to see these solar events having a greater impact.”
“What’s interesting about a course like this is that it can serve as a means of outreach to those looking to get involved with science,” remarks Alexander Manduca ’22, current PHY417 student and president of SJU’s Society of Physics. “Astrophysics is such an elegant and robust field of study — courses like this can make it truly digestible for those who have no background in science whatsoever.”