August 3, 2014
Scientist Warns Of The Threat Of Inevitable Solar Super Storms
April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
University of Bristol’s professor of Aerospace Engineering Ashley Dale cautions that “solar super-storms” are going to cause “catastrophic” and “long-lasting” impacts if we continue to ignore the threat of such storms.Dale is a member of the international task force SolarMAX, which was designed to identify the risks of a solar storm and how humanity could minimize the risks. He believes that a particularly violent solar storm is inevitable. Such a storm would wreak havoc on our communications systems and power supplies, effectively crippling transport, sanitation and medicine services. The study findings were reported in this month’s issue of Physics World.
"Without power, people would struggle to fuel their cars at petrol stations, get money from cash dispensers or pay online. Water and sewage systems would be affected too, meaning that health epidemics in urbanized areas would quickly take a grip, with diseases we thought we had left behind centuries ago soon returning," Dale said.
Solar storms are the result of violent eruptions on the surface of the Sun. These storms are accompanied by coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which are the most energetic events in our solar system. CMEs involve huge bubbles of plasma and magnetic fields bursting from the surface of the Sun into space.
Most CMEs follow behind a massive release of energy in the form of gamma rays, x-rays, protons and electrons, known as a solar flare.
When a CME of sufficient magnitude tears into the Earth’s magnetic field and rips it apart, it is considered to be a solar super-storm. The Carrington Event of 1859 was the largest solar super-storm on record, named after astronomer Richard Carrington who spotted the preceding solar flare.
The Carrington Event released about 10^22 kilojoules (kJ) of energy. To compare, this is equivalent to 10 billion Hiroshima bombs exploding simultaneously. The CME released a trillion kilograms of charged particles that shot towards Earth at approximately 1800 miles per second. Luckily, our electronic infrastructure at the time consisted of about 1.2 million miles of telephone wire, so the effect was relatively small.
NASA agrees with Dale that these types of events are inevitable. In fact, NASA predicts that the Earth is in the path of a Carrington-level approximately every 150 years. This puts us about 5 years overdue, and NASA says there is a 12 percent chance that one will occur in the next decade.
Because of the potential damage such a CME could cause to our electronic infrastructure now, SolarMAX’s 40 international members were tasked identifying the best ways of limited the potential damage of a solar super-storm. They met at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France, last year.
According to a sub-group of SolarMAX, space weather forecasting is our best solution. An array of 16 lunchbox-sized cube satellites could be put into orbit around the Sun to provide us with up to a week’s notice of solar events, telling us when, where and at what magnitude they might occur. This would provide adequate time to switch off vulnerable power lines, re-orient satellites, ground airplanes and start national recovery programs.
In contrast, Dale says the best solution is to design spacecraft and aircraft so that sensitive, on-board instruments are better protected. Such designs would include redistributing the existing internal architecture of the craft, putting sensitive payloads into areas where they would be surrounded by non-sensitive bulk material such as polyethylene, aluminum and water.
"As a species, we have never been more vulnerable to the volatile mood of our nearest star, but it is well within our ability, skill and expertise as humans to protect ourselves," Dale concluded.
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