Some may have forgotten what it looks like, but amazing new photos taken by Hinode remind us of the sun's spectacular force.
The sun, long hidden during Ireland's monsoon summer, will have nowhere to hide in Dublin this month when some of the world's finest solar experts meet in the city to decipher the new treasure trove of pictures from Hinode, Japan's spectacularly successful mission to study the violent sun.
Hinode (which is Japanese for sunrise) was launched last September from the Uchinoura Space Centre in Kyushu, Japan, on a mission to study the sunspots which give rise to powerful flares and solar storms. Astronomers have been studying sunspots since the days of Galileo, four hundred years ago - but they still don't know how to predict flares, and data from Hinode may help to solve the mystery.
This month's meeting in Dublin - Announcing First Results from Hinode - has attracted huge international interest, with several hundred scientists presenting their early discoveries in almost every conceivable area of sunspots, solar flares and solar storms. The meeting is being hosted by the Astrophysics Research Group in the School of Physics at Trinity College and runs from the 20 to the 24 of August.
Solar flares are generated by the bizarre way in which the sun rotates, with its equator spinning every 25 earth days, while the poles take more than a week longer. This difference in speed slowly twists the sun's powerful magnetic fields into giant knots until eventually the pent-up energy bursts out, releasing as much energy as a billion megatons of TNT or 300,000 power stations.
Earth's magnetic fields protect humanity from the direct effects of such storms, but our growing dependence on satellites for communication and navigation means that a massive solar flare could spell disaster. The collapse of satellite links could lead to a meltdown in stock markets and endanger aircraft and ships that depend on global positioning systems. In July, 1947, two solar flares caused radio fadeouts over Shannon Airport and caused extensive interference to air traffic control.
The most powerful solar flare of the last 500 years is believed to have been one that occurred in September 1859, which is often described as the most widely observed astronomical event in history. The sun doubled its brightness for several minutes and the surge in magnetism induced powerful electrical currents in telegraph wires across Europe, igniting widespread fires.
A new book about the 1859 event has recently been published by Stuart Clark, who is a former editor of the British magazine, Astronomy Now. The book is called The Sun Kings, and Dr Clarke will lecture on the subject at the Millennium Hall in Cork on 13 August, the Arts Millennium Building in NUI Galway on the 14 and at Trinity College, Dublin, in the Physics Building on 15 August. All events begin at 8 pm and the lectures have been organised by Astronomy Ireland in association with NUI Galway and Cork Institute of Technology.
All this attention to our Sun is partly because 2007 is the International Heliophysical Year, a UN-sponsored international programme of scientific collaboration which involves teams of astronomers across the world cooperating in the study of our local star - upon which all life on Earth ultimately depends, rain or shine.