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NASA studies solar flare dangers to Earth-based technology

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NASA studies solar flare dangers to Earth-based technology

Washington (DC) – The National Academy of Sciences, under direction by NASA, has concluded the first economic data study on solar activity and the Earth. The report quantifies the effects fluctuations in the Sun’s magnetic field have on our planet and is looking for ways to prevent damage from this “extreme space weather.”

NASA reports that extreme solar eruptions can have “severe consequences for communications, power grids and other technology on Earth.” While these effects have been known for decades, especially in very long power lines, NASA is now looking for ways to mitigate their effects.

Richard Fisher, director of the Heliophysics division at NASA, said, “To mitigate possible public safety issues, it is vital that we better understand extreme space weather events caused by the sun’s activity.”

Solar flares not only emit a continuous stream of plasma, called a “solar wind,” but also release literally billions of tons of mass. This “coronal mass ejection” results in immense clouds of material which, if directed toward the Earth’s location, cause large magnetic storms in the magnetosphere and upper atmosphere. These events can affect both space-borne and ground-based technologies.

Some effects of this space weather are currents induced in wires and energetic particles which temporarily displace Earth’s radiation belt. Currents can disrupt power lines and have been known to even create wide-spread blackouts in power grids and communication errors on high speed pathways across the Internet. The effects of solar flares have even been observed as far back as the 19th century, following the invention of the telegraph.

NASA’s concerns are over a similar catastrophic failure occurring in the government’s infrastructure in space or on the ground. They are focusing on preventative measures.

Daniel Baker, professor and director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder, who also chaired the panel that prepared the report, said, “Whether it is terrestrial catastrophes or extreme space weather incidents, the results can be devastating to modern societies that depend in a myriad of ways on advanced technological systems.”

The sun’s solar cycle is known to be an 11-year cycle. Right now, the sun is near it’s minimum amount of solar activity. NASA expects solar storms will increase in frequency and intensity between now and 2012, when it will again reach its “solar maximum.”

Funding

Funding for this report was provided for by The Heliophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, DC. This specific division of NASA seeks to “understand the sun, its solar processes and the interaction of solar plasma and radiation with Earth, other planets and the universe.” The National Academies (including the National Academy of Sciences) are chartered by an act of Congress, and provide “independent technical and scientific advice to the federal government.”