The words “space weather” may conjure up images of intergalactic tornadoes and star-filled blizzards, but it actually refers to the electrically charged particles and radiation from the sun.
After a quiet few years, our sun is once again ramping up with activity. But what does that mean for us?
Elsayed Talaat from the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration explains how scientists are protecting our technology.
“Just as Earth goes through season, the sun also goes through season. Since we started looking at the sun thousands of years ago, we’ve noticed that there’s been spots on the sun. And and when we started measuring these in and cataloguing these with telescopes, we’ve noticed that there is this us a cycle in these spots where they increase and then decrease in about about an average of an 11 year cycle. And that that cycle means something, not just the number of spots that you see, but that means we’ve now learned that that means it means increasing output of the sun, increasing solar activity.”
As we rely more heavily on electronics in our everyday life, monitoring solar activity and space weather extremes has never been more important.
Space weather doesn’t physically impact humans on the ground, but it can affect the sensitive electronics on our satellites, as well as our power grids and communications and navigation systems.
The issue is becoming increasingly important as society becomes more reliant on technologies, from GPS systems to cell phones, that can potentially be affected by increased solar activity.
“This increasing activity, when we go into the phase, the new phase of the sun, solar maximum, we will expect to see more solar flares. These are electric bursts of electromagnetic energy off the sun. And these can cause, for instance, H.F. communication blackouts, radio blackouts that can affect our emergency responders as well as our airline communications. Often associated with these flares are energetic particle bursts that that can affect, that can damage satellites by damaging these subsystems, electronic substances and satellites and even the solar panels” says Talaat.
Talaat says a co-ordinated response is needed to these events.
“Under the National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan, this is something that we brought the focus into how we’re going to mitigate for these… Not just research and not just monitor, but how we’re going to prepare for the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, other agencies, for instance, FEMA recently came out with a a operations concept for for response to space weather events. We have instituted space weather as part of the International, National Emergency and local, state and local emergency management exercises. So so across the board where we’re preparing for how we would respond to these large events.”
Radiation can be dangerous for our astronauts too — especially those working outside the International Space Station and for future explorers to the Moon.