Northumbria University awarded £1.2m to improve our understanding of the Sun

Dr Richard Morton

Researchers from Northumbria University have been awarded £1.2m to help advance our understanding of the Sun and its impact on the planets within our solar system.

The team, led by solar physicist Dr Richard Morton, will spend the next four years exploring some of the fascinating phenomena associated with our closest star – including powerful solar winds and the giant, planet-sized concentrations of magnetic fields known as sunspots.

They will use advanced mathematical techniques and cutting-edge computer simulations to create models of the Sun which will provide new insight into the physics behind its activity.

The project, Revealing the Pattern of Solar Alfvénic Waves (RiPSAW), is being funded through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) after Dr Morton was awarded a prestigious 2020 UKRI Future Leader Fellowship, announced today (Thursday 23 April).

He will work alongside colleagues at Northumbria, as well as scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Harvard Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in the United States, and the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canaria in Spain.

The aim of the RiPSAW project is to examine the role of magnetic waves in the heating the Sun’s atmosphere to a million degrees and generating powerful solar winds. As Dr Morton explains: “Many stars possess their own weather systems, although these systems are extreme compared to those we experience on Earth.

“In our solar system, a hot, million-degree wind blows off the Sun at colossal speeds reaching millions of miles per hour, washing over the planets.

“The Earth’s magnetic field protects us by deflecting this wind, but other planetary bodies in the solar system have been exposed to its influence – for example, the Sun’s wind is known to have stripped Mars of its atmosphere.

“We know the Sun loses over 10 trillion tonnes of material each year through its winds, so are also interested in finding out how these winds contribute to a star’s evolution, and how they might influence the habitability of exoplanets around other Sun-like stars.”