Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Spooky Action at a Distance Helps Predict Solar Flares

One of the great "constants" we are taught in science is was the constancy of nuclear decay.  Changes is pressure, temperature etc. etc. have been shown repeatedly to have no effect on the rate at which radioactive isotope nuclei emit beta, gamma or alpha particles and become new isotopes, each atom acting independently of all others.  Yet that principle seems to be violated by a discovery that radioactive nuclei subtly change their rate of decay related to the rotation of the sun, the orbit of the earth around the sun, and perhaps most tellingly, in anticipation of solar flares:

New system could predict solar flares, give advance warning
Researchers may have discovered a new method to predict solar flares more than a day before they occur, providing advance warning to help protect satellites, power grids and astronauts from potentially dangerous radiation.

The system works by measuring differences in gamma radiation emitted when atoms in radioactive elements "decay," or lose energy. This rate of decay is widely believed to be constant, but recent findings challenge that long-accepted rule.
Fischbach and Jere Jenkins, a nuclear engineer and director of radiation laboratories in the School of Nuclear Engineering, are leading research to study the phenomenon and possibly develop a new warning system. Jenkins, monitoring a detector in his lab in 2006, discovered that the decay rate of a radioactive sample changed slightly beginning 39 hours before a large solar flare.

Since then, researchers have been examining similar variation in decay rates before solar flares, as well as those resulting from Earth's orbit around the sun and changes in solar rotation and activity. The new findings appeared online last week in the journal Astroparticle Physics.
So how does it work; what causes the change in the decay rates?
The new detection technique is based on a hypothesis that radioactive decay rates are influenced by solar activity, possibly streams of subatomic particles called solar neutrinos. This influence can wax and wane due to seasonal changes in the Earth's distance from the sun and also during solar flares, according to the hypothesis, which is supported with data published in a dozen research papers since it was proposed in 2006, said Ephraim Fischbach, a Purdue University professor of physics.
OK, I can imagine that;  we're constantly bathed with an unseen rain of solar neutrinos, very fast, very light particle emitted in radioactive decay and fusion reactions, that carry off variable amounts of energy from the reactions.  While they rarely interact with particles, they do interact enough to be measurable.  Could it be that solar neutrinos can trigger the  decay of unstable  nuclei, and that changes in the solar neutrino flux from the above factors is causing the cyclic changes in radioactive decay associated with the sun and solar flares? 

Cool stuff; the science isn't settled yet.

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