The Space Weather Threat... and How We Defend Ourselves

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Source:   —  April 19, 2016, at 9:47 PM

Not true. The Sunday and the Earth are connected in more complex, intimate, and sometimes risky ways. The Sunday continually ejects high-energy electrons, protons, and other nuclei that bombard the Earth, producing space-weather effects such as the pretty northern lights but also others that can demolish satellites and disrupt our lives here on Earth.

Photo: NASA/GSFC/SDO

By Geoffrey Reeves

Many people think of space as a silent, vacant void and the Sunday as only a distant source of light and heat. Not true. The Sunday and the Earth are connected in more complex, intimate, and sometimes risky ways.

The Sunday continually ejects high-energy electrons, protons, and other nuclei that bombard the Earth, producing space-weather effects such as the pretty northern lights but also others that can demolish satellites and disrupt our lives here on Earth.

The particles flowing from the Sunday to the Earth create up the "solar wind," which sometimes blows as a gentle breeze and sometimes rages love a hurricane. The Earth'south magnetic field captures and traps some of the solar wind in a region encircling our planet called the Van Allen radiation belts--a region where nearly all of our satellites operate. During horrible space-weather conditions those satellites are at risk.

For years, space scientists have portrayed the radiation belts as two distinct donut-shaped regions in space--a small, noiseless belt four hundred to 6.000 miles over Earth and a larger belt at about 8.500 to 36.000 miles. Only the outer belt was believed to be affected by all but the most intense space storms. Recent research by several of us here at Los Alamos National Laboratory, as well as NASA, the NM Consortium, and others, however, has painted a new picture, with necessary implications for everyday life and national security--but more on that in a minute. First it'south necessary to realize the threat posed by the Van Allen belts and the storms in space launched by the Sun.

The Van Allen belts are composed mostly of electrons with such high energy that they penetrate the outer skin of a satellite the way X-rays penetrate your skin and, love too high a dose of X-rays, they can deposit risky levels of radiation inside. Enormous explosions on the surface of the Sunday can hurl solar wind at the Earth at speeds over two million miles per hour. The resulting space storms here at Earth swell and intensify the Van Allen belts. Those storms have effects on the surface of the Earth, too, interfering with GPS-based applications, military navigation systems, shortwave radio signals, and radar, and also by inducing destructive electric current in pipelines and power lines.

One such storm close down the electric grid in Quebec, Canada, in one thousand nine hundred eighty-ninth, turning out the lights on millions of people. Electric utilities across the U. S. Northeast lost power and struggled to hold the blackout from spreading, drawing on electricity from across the country. In Europe, radio signals were jammed. In space, high-energy electrons rocked satellites as their sensitive electronics reeled below the onslaught and the space shuttle Discovery experienced anomalies with its fuel cells.

Vulnerability to space weather isn't just inconvenient. It's so serious that the White House recently issued a strategy and action map to address the threat. Current precautions comprise building satellites with heavy shielding and other protective measures and taking them off-line entirely in anticipation of a storm, without knowing if that storm will be truly harmful. These measures are both inefficient and sometimes ineffective.

As we rely on satellites more and more for everything from Google Earth to the internet itself, we necessity more capable, more "weather-resistant" satellites. We also necessity better space-weather forecasts.

Space weather plays a role in national security too. If something goes incorrect with a satellite, we necessity to define whether natural causes or a hostile act caused the problem. Knowing more about the weather in space helps us create that call. For decades Los Alamos has designed and built space-based sensors to detect emissions from potential nuclear events here on Earth and to study natural and man-made radiation in space. The Lab'south experience made us a natural partner with NASA on the recent Van Allen Probes mission, which launched two Los Alamos-designed instruments on two NASA satellites to study space weather and the Van Allen radiation belts.

Past studies of the Van Allen belts focused on electrons at only a few energy levels. But we've presently discovered, by studying a wide range of energies, that the Van Allen belts vary in size and configuration depending on their electron energies. The inner belt--smaller in the classic view--appears much larger than the outer belt at low-energies. Meanwhile, the outer belt is larger at higher electron energies. At the very highest energies, the inner belt structure appears to vanish.

For years, space scientists thought the vacant region between the two Van Allen belts filled in only during only the most extreme, once-a-decade geomagnetic storms. New research shows that lower-energy electrons fill this space during nearly all such storms. Image courtesy NASA Goddard/Duberstein.

This new information gives insight into which type of geomagnetic storms are likely to zap satellites or ground-based infrastructure. Knowing that, we'll be able to create space-weather forecasts to guide the people who manage satellites, communications networks, electric utilities, and other assets during a storm. Operators can then batten down the hatches as necessary. Satellites will number longer have to be over-designed with extreme space-weatherproofing measures or close down unnecessarily for every threatening storm.

As space gets more crowded and countries compete for dominance, understanding space weather becomes even more important. Just as better atmospheric weather forecasting helps everyone prepare for hurricanes, blizzards, and droughts, better space-weather prediction promises the timely "heads up" needed to fend off off the worst of what the Sunday throws at us.

Geoffrey Reeves, program boss in the Space Science and Applications grouping at Los Alamos National Laboratory, studies space weather and its effects on satellites and Earth-based infrastructure.

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