Half of U.S. solar physics grads come from MSU

By ARINA BILLIS/Montana State News

Montana State University’s solar physics program started out in 1993. As of 2015, the department has gained international fame and produces half of all graduates in the country with a specialty in solar physics. In addition, the MSU solar physics group is continually leading discoveries that bring scientists all over the world closer to the prediction of the space weather.

“I think we successfully attract high-quality graduated students in solar physics. And it is very beneficial for us, as it lets us do more research. MSU doesn’t have an observatory; instead we have partners and team members in observatories around the world. This provides our students an opportunity to get involved in those observatories. And when they graduate, their names are known all over the world,” says David McKenzie, associate research professor at MSU.

For the last 20 years, interest in solar physics has increased, according to McKenzie. The Internet is overflowing with images of the sun from various different angles, as scientists across the world are producing detailed studies of the sun’s activities.

MSU’s diverse solar physics team consists of researchers around the world, including professors from the United Kingdom, Turkey, Australia, Russia and Japan.

MSU’s most recent discovery came from Robert Leamon, and assistant research professor. It has been known for a long time the sun has an 11-year cycle. Leamon’s recent discovery suggests the sun has an additional two years of its cycle involving magnetic bonds inside the sun.

Leamon says: “The next thing we are working on is that we can explain the 11-years cycle, and one-year cycle. Then we will try to write up on explaining an 100-years cycle.”

According to Dana Longcope, professor at MSU, “Leamon and McIntosh are coming up with a hypothesis, which not everybody agrees with. It suggests that things going on deep within the sun somehow influence things higher up, and they haven’t really shown a mechanism for that or full explanation for that yet. So I’m withholding judgment.”

However, Jong Qiu, associate professor at MSU, says: “In the past years, our life became critically dependent on communication. In order to protect our technology, we need to know more about the sun. Any observation and discovery brings us closer to knowing the sun activities.”

MSU’s and other scientist’s solar physic research gives us insight into sun weather patterns that affect our life down here on Earth. Through predicting space weather, big companies can save a lot of money. Airline companies lose millions of dollars each year because of unplanned flight rerouting due to sun storms. Knowledge of sun storms allows engineers to build more satellites and launch them. People can also avoid electricity outage and save on cost of power.

– edited by Jordan Garceau

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