By Kriti Gupta
The world has had its fair share of natural calamities and is well versed with the damage that they cause. However, not many are aware of solar storms because they are invisible to the naked eye . In 1859, a coronal mass ejection(a giant cloud of solar plasma) had hit the Earth’s magnetosphere causing one of the largest geomagnetic solar storms that the planet has ever seen. Famously known as the Carrington Event, it bred an interest in scientists to study solar storms.
What are solar storms?
Our sun is a huge body of molten gases that is constantly in a state of flux. Solar storms occur when the sun emits huge bursts of energy in the form of solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CME). These phenomena send a stream of electrical charges and magnetic fields toward the Earth at a speed of about three million miles per hour.
Aurorae, which can be observed near the polar circles, are caused by the interaction between the charged particles from the sun with the atoms in the upper atmosphere of the earth. Solar storms are as powerful as billions of nuclear bombs and can severely damage our communication systems.
Reduce, Reuse and Recycle: Low-Cost telescope in Ooty
The GRAPES-3 experiment muon telescope, which is the largest in the world, is located in the Cosmic Ray Laboratory in Ooty. GRAPES-3 is designed to study, among other things, the sun as an accelerator of energetic particles thereby giving us an insight into the cause and effects of solar storms. This telescope is made up of 40 year old zinc-coated steel pipes, which were recycled for this purpose and is the world’s cheapest cosmic ray detector.
These pipes were imported from Japan, where they were used for construction purposes. A team of Indian and Japanese scientists examined them for neutrinos, which are sub-atomic particles produced by high-energy interactions in the galaxy. The six metre long pipes were buried under one of the world’s deepest gold mines- the Kolar Gold fields.
Eventually, around 7,500 pipes were transported to the laboratory which has a radio astronomy centre as well. Soon, the research on high-energy cosmic rays began when scientists started making muon sensors from discarded pipes.
From defunct iron pipes to muon sensors
The lab assistants open the pipes and clean them with high-pressure water jets. A 100-micron tungsten wire is inserted into the pipe and it is closed with airtight seals. The next step involves filling the pipe with a combination of methane and argon gas and an electric field is applied across it to make the sensor effective.
These pipes are then assembled in rows, below two metres of concrete which acts as an absorber, to form a muon telescope. To avoid any leakages, the scientists modified a helium spray gun by attaching a seven cent injection syringe needle to the nozzle of the pipe.
“Every day, we make ten such recycled pipes ready for our experiments. The plan was to make very sensitive sensors to detect the weakest of signals. We wanted to measure cosmic rays with higher sensitivity than ever done before”, said Atul Jain, a scientist at the facility.
Innovation in space exploration: Learn from India
India seems to have mastered the art of producing efficient technology at low costs. A shining example of this is India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, which was carried out on a shoestring budget of only $74 million, which was less than the $100 million budget for the Hollywood space thriller ‘Gravity’.
There are a number of cosmic ray telescopes located around the world but none are as powerful as the one in Ooty. The computer software programs are locally developed, as is the cooling system.
The telescope not only promotes recycling and reusing but can act as a strong support system against the adverse effects of solar storms. Solar explosions interfere with our technology and can damage aircraft autopilots, cause power outages and take us back to the Stone Age. Safeguards against the same are a must to ensure the continuity of human progress.