Solar Flares: A Risk to Earth & Space
Tuesday, April 17th, 2012
At any given point in time, the sun is approximately 93,000,000 miles from Earth, and yet it impacts almost every activity on the planet. The Sun is the giver of life here on Earth, but the events on the Sun’s surface have the ability to wreak havoc for us critters who have arisen thanks to the star’s rays.
Those warm rays that brighten everyone’s mood in spring after a long winter have the potential to include dangerous amounts of radiation that can disrupt modern life as we know it.
A lesson from the past
In 1989, massive solar events on the Sun’s surface created a magnetic storm that bombarded the Earth’s atmosphere above North America and disrupted electrical power for the city of Quebec. According to reports from the power utility, the storm’s radiation spiked the voltage on 5 major lines, tripping transformers and shutting down service to the city “within seconds.” Science Daily reported that the energy from the storm created a series of “northern light” phenomena that could be viewed as far south as Cuba and created electrical currents in the ground.
Back in 1989, people found themselves without heat, stuck in elevators and dim office buildings. One can only guess at the widespread effects a massive storm could have on an increasingly connected population in the 21st century…
Danger in orbit
The new threat is the role satellites play in our daily lives.
The 1989 storm also meant trouble for low-orbiting satellites that rely on vulnerable electrical systems for navigation. NASA’s own communication satellite was sent spinning out of control as the satellite’s guidance systems received the massive amount of radiation. While satellite technology has improved, the increased number of satellites and rise in the amount of space debris could spell disaster.
Solar flares and storms set off massive waves of plasma energy, enough to disrupt any technology that depends upon constant communications with satellites, namely GPS systems, cell-phones, airline flight patterns as well as other electrical systems like the power grid. The vast amount of Plasma distributed from one of these events could cause drag on the signal sent between the receiver and the positioning satellites. Because the GPS receiver on your car dashboard uses the speed of the signal from the satellite to calculate your position, this increased drag could easily throw off the accuracy of the device and send you in the wrong direction.
Fortunately, astronauts aboard the International Space Station are relatively safe from the effects of such storms. According to a NASA article on risks of solar flares, the ISS was constructed with heavy shielding to account for increased waves of radiation and is largely protected from absorbing the brunt of the flare’s energy as it orbits within the Earth’s magnetic sphere. In a somewhat ironic twist, you’re more likely to feel an effect from the storm on the Earth than while floating in the massive space station.
By Jason Taetsch
Jason Taetsch is a freelance content writer with experience in tech writing, blogs, travel writing, pop culture and a range of promotional materials. Jason blogs viaContently.com.