May The Electromagnetic Force Be With You

By Nathan Hellner-Mestelman
Junior Category (Grades 7-8)
Experiment | Physics

Solar flares are explosions on the Sun that release a lot of radiation, which can damage power lines, people, radio communications, the entire internet, satellites, and other electrical systems. An ability to predict solar flares would be helpful, so satellites and other electric machines could be placed into lockdown mode to prevent damage. My project focuses on a way to detect solar flares early.

A way to detect these flares is by looking at the Earth’s magnetic field. Since solar flares are just tangles in the Sun’s magnetic field, they also affect the Earth’s magnetic field. For my project I used a simple magnetometer, which can detect small movements in the Earth’s magnetic field. I made a magnetometer out of a soda bottle, a bar magnet, and a mirror attached to a card suspended within the bottle by a thread. I measured changes in the magnetic field with a laser reflected off the mirror; as the magnetic field moved, the bar magnet, the mirror, and the laser reflection moved too. I looked at the deviation on a ruler attached to where the laser was being reflected. I also recruited five other people and gave each of them a magnetometer, so I could have multiple data points collected from various locations within the community.

Data were collected every half hour between 5-9 pm daily for six weeks, with some additional data points collected outside of these times during the day when I wasn’t at school. After all the data were in, I plotted it out along with golden standard data from the Victoria Magnetic Observatory (VMO). To see if the data correlated at all with solar flares, I plotted all the data out next to solar flare activity from the NASA GOES-17 satellite. While there were a few points of apparent correlation between my data, NASA data, and the VMO data, my data had a lot of inconsistencies and scatter making it hard to interpret, suggesting that these points may have been just coincidence. More consistent and extensive data collection and attention to potential limiting factors might strengthen any existing correlation. The fact that it was solar minimum at the time of this project, in which there was little solar activity, was a limiting factor. There were also a number of other limiting factors in our data collection including the following: a) we live on a fairly busy street, and the metal in cars can affect the magnetometer; b) there could be human error in reading the measurements, and the laser could have accidentally gotten bumped resulting in inconsistent measurements; c) the string in the magnetometer could have stretched over the first few days, and the laser may not have been snug in the holder; and d) my set-up was on the main floor of my house and not the basement, which could have contributed to disturbance of the magnetometer.

While efforts were made to maintain consistency between all of the magnetometers, there were inconsistencies within each environment, which may have affected the results. Also, I thought that the magnetic field was only influenced by solar flares, but I learned that weather and the Earth’s core can independently affect the magnetic field.

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