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Sun Storms: The Ultimate Homewreckers

I’ve been a baaaad blogger.

Headed out to San Francisco for the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, I had grand ambitions of doing it all: writing stories, editing copy, meeting scientists, hobnobbing with other writers, and of course live blogging from the meeting.

Life, it seems, had other plans. But never fear. Now that the crush of press conferences is abating, I’ve had some time to do almost everything on that wishlist, including getting caught up on planetary news.

I’ve got a couple things in the works culled from AGU, including news on arctic Mars and possibly some bits about habitable exoplanets, auroras on Jupiter and Saturn, and the controversy over lightning on Venus.

First, though, I sat in on a talk about solar storms and the surprising find that Earth’s magnetosphere has been leaking big time and is even now building up a layer of solar particles.

The scary part is that when the sun’s next cycle of high activity kicks in, it will trigger an input of energy into the magnetosphere that will cause the built-up layer to esplode, like tossing a match into a gas-filled room.

That means more radiation reaching Earth, bringing hefty auroras, power outages, and GPS downtime.

But hey, in the grand scheme of things, we get off pretty easy.

A few hours south of AGU, the folks at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena released an image this week showing a whole neighborhood of sunlike stars that are having their planet-making disks swept clean away by bigger stellar bullies.

stars-bullies.jpg

—Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA

The sorta fuzzy new pic taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope shows a nebula 6,500 light-years away in the constellation Cassiopeia.

A bright white blob near the center is actually a group of four humungoid stars, each about 20 times as massive as the sun.

About a light-year away from the blob are three smaller, younger stars being buffeted by the bigger stars’ solar winds, which are so strong that that the trio’s planet-forming materials go shooting off like the tails of comets.

In the space of about a million years, those stars will be stripped clean of planetary potential, noted Xavier Koenig of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

So even for planets, building a nice house depends quite a bit on the location of your real estate. The trick is whether your neighborhood gets rezoned while you still have enough supplies to spare.

Astronomers think our middle-aged star first formed in a crowded, turbulent cloud—not unlike the one in the Spitzer image—that included more massive peers.

Over time, though, the stars drifted apart, leaving our sun to set up house in a quieter part of town.