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Hold the sun in your hands

Every part of the sun will be exposed to you on February 6 if you have an iPhone or iPad, Nasa scientist Madhulika Guhathakurta tells T.V. Jayan

Come February 6 and millions of people around the world, including a large number of Indians, may “hold” the sun in their hands. Like a C sun in their hands. Like a ball in their palm, they can spin it, flip it and see the goings-on on its far side, and zoom in on a sunspot. All they need is an iPhone or iPad with an app developed by scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa).
With 3D Sun, the new app, one can see every part of the sun on a handheld in real time, thanks to images beamed down by three sun-tracking Nasa spacecraft that will move to unique positions to cover the whole star. If there is an eruption in any part, observers may witness the spectacular cosmic event. Of course, only eight minutes after it has occurred, because that’s the time sunlight takes to reach earth. The software constructs a three-dimensional solar sphere using real-time images beamed by the space probes.
A good measure of the credit for all this goes to Madhulika Guhathakurta, an Indian-American astrophysicist. Guhathakurta spent her early years in Calcutta, then for studies in Mumbai and Delhi before going to the US for higher studies in the early Eighties. She now heads an ambitious Nasa programme called Living with a Star (LWS). The 3D Sun is actually a sideshow, intended mainly for keep ing alive people’s interest in astronomy . The LWS’s objective is to unravel those aspects of the sun that affect day-to-day life on earth. Eventually, it would help forecast the impact of the sun’s turbulent behaviour on the earth.
“We are only beginning to understand that space weather, particularly events in the sun’s atmosphere, has a profound impact on the earth and hence directly influences our everyday life,” says Guhathakurta, who was in Goa recently in connection with a symposium on space climate.
The sun’s magnetic activity swings from a minimum to maximum over an average 11 years. The variations (which influence the quantum of radiation that reaches the earth) are gauged by the number and placement of sunspots visible. Increased solar activity, which entails huge eruptions of charged particles and emission of intense radiation, can adversely affect satellites, communication and power systems, as well as pose serious health risk to astronauts. The next solar maximum is expected around 2013.
“Solar flares and associated mass ejection from the solar corona can cause geomagnetic storms. This happens when charged solar particles interact with the earth’s magnetic field. They not only give rise to spectacular celestial events like southern and northern lights but also cause serious damage to power and telecommunication networks,” explains Guhathakurta, who has spent 17 years at Nasa, including 10 at its Goddard Space Flight Center as a research scientist. A geomagnetic storm kicked off by the last solar maximum in 1989 tripped power grids in Canada, with millions of people forced to go without electricity for hours.

“If such an eventuality happens over a wide region, there could be serious threat to human lives and cause enormous economic loss,” she adds. The biggest solar superstorm recorded in his tory was in 1859. “If an event of such magni tude occurs now, it’ll be difficult to even imagine the devastation it may cause,” Guhathakurta says. Last February , the LWS programme launched a Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), a spacecraft to monitor the sun’s activity . The objective: to observe the sun round the clock and investigate activities that go on inside it, on its surface and in its atmosphere. It was built with experience gained from two previous sun-observing space probes called the Solar-Terrestrial Relations Observatory or “Stereo” -named thus because they revolve around the sun in the same orbit as the earth.
On February 6, these two probes will be at exactly 180 degrees from each other. Together with the SDO, “they will be able to give a full view of the sun,” says an excited Guhathakurta. Though the Apple devices have been able to download the image for almost a year, it’s for the first time that the whole sun will be covered.
Being able to watch the “full sun” offers tremendous possibilities to scientists. For instance, if there is a solar storm or solar prominence (phenomena of large, glowing clouds of gas suspended which are seen as loops outside the visible disc) on the far side of the sun, scientists will get to know about it before it comes to the near side. The sun completes one rotation on its axis in 27 days.
Despite her busy schedule, Guhathakurta finds time to practise Rabindra Sangeet, and even performed shows in Mumbai to raise funds for the victims of the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Another area she is passionate about is developing planetary shows for children, to encourage them to develop an interest in astronomy . One such show she helped devise is called “Journey to the Stars”, which is being used by the American Museum of Natural History . “It is immensely popular,” she smiles.
What about organising the show in India? Sadly , her attempts at this came to naught with the Indian authorities showing little interest. “I hope one day children in India will experience the presentation that explains the life and death of stars,” she says. 
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Hold the sun in your hands
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