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A massive solar storm may have devastating effects on the earth’s magnetic field, our electricity grids and the technology we use in day-to-day life. This is why an NWU researcher has made it his mission to keep a watchful eye on this moody and unpredictable heavenly body.
Ruhann Steyn, researcher, lecturer and currently PhD student, is playing an important role in helping to establish a world-class solar observatory at the NWU. This will empower local and international researchers with data to determine when events on the sun will take place and predict the outcome of these.
He says the theoretical groundwork for this project already started during his master’s studies in 2016. “We have done a lot of work since then and now hope to establish the biggest observatory solely dedicated to solar events in Africa at the university this year.”
The plan is to install the observatory on the rooftop of the Natural Sciences building on the NWU’s Potchefstroom Campus.
“Our aim is to have a self-sufficient facility with state-of-the-art telescopes.”
Don’t underestimate the effects of the sun
Ruhann, who hails from the NWU’s Centre for Space Research, explains that his doctoral research is mostly concerned with solar energetic particle transport in the heliosphere. In a nutshell, this means that he studies explosions on the sun, its resulting shockwaves and particles, how these shockwaves and particles travel through space and what it means for earth.
“An explosion on the sun, also known as a coronal mass ejection, can be strong enough to ‘fry’ satellites and even damage big terrestrial generators.”Although it is a rare event, it has happened in recent memory in Sweden in 2003 and also in Canada in 1989 when parts of the electric grid were knocked out.
“It will happen again. We know that activity on the sun will gradually increase over the next three to five years and reach a maximum again, resulting in several massive solar storms.”
Ruhann is part of a team that is developing theoretical models to assist with space weather predictions.
“One of the core results of my research is to implement a live-feed prediction system at the NWU. This will be done by processing satellite data through an algorithm that is being developed in-house. Through this we will know of a solar event within minutes and will be able to calculate its potential effect on earth.”
He says because data from the sun travels at the speed of light, it can be collected within eight minutes.
“The more dangerous proton particles that we must look out for, however, are heavier and can take up to three days to reach earth. These dangerous particles may even damage our DNA through radiation and that is why we have to be prepared and anticipate what the effects may be, especially for astronauts.”
The sun may be 150 million kilometres away but what happens on its surface has a profound impact on earth and its inhabitants.
Travelling back in time
Ruhann’s interest in all things solar started when he was in high school in Pretoria.
He was chosen to attend the United Space School of the Johnson’s Space Centre at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the United States of America.
He returned to NASA in 2015 to mentor students on solar radiation and interplanetary travel.
“I am grateful to my colleagues, especially Prof Du Toit Strauss, the head of the Solar Energetic Particle Transport research team. They support my studies and encourage me in my goal of establishing the observatory, building the telescopes and travelling to wherever the sun takes me.”
- Ruhann Steyn
Research takes Ruhann places
Ruhann’s research on the sun has taken him to many places, including the Arabian desert.
It was during his PhD studies that he had the opportunity to travel to the desert in the Sultanate of Oman to observe an annular eclipse on 26 December last year.
“The word annular refers to something ring-shaped and this is exactly what I saw: an amazing fiery ring formed by the sun as 92% of its surface was eclipsed by the moon.”
Oman was one of the best places on earth to view the spectacular eclipse and Ruhann says it was a special Christmas, even if he was in the desert without friends and family.
He hopes to return to Oman, when the current pandemic permits, to see another eclipse.
Journey to Antarctica
During his master’s studies Ruhann volunteered for three months at the South African base in Antarctica.
His work on the magnetic field of the sun was put to good use when the South African National Space Agency selected him to help with the installation of a magnetometer under the Antarctic ice.
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