As we go about our daily lives, we are preoccupied with Earth-bound factors—the people around us, our jobs, the weather, economic and political news—but most of us don't the far-reaching effects that can space have on our communities and safety.
Image from NASA Science.
Space weather refers to the various phenomena that occur in space, such as solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and geomagnetic storms. These events can have a significant impact on our planet and our technology, and understanding their effects broadens our understanding of our place in this solar system and our connections to the forces that surround our home planet.
The Impact of Space Weather on Technology
During a geomagnetic storm, the charged particles from the sun can induce electric currents in the Earth's atmosphere and our power grids, leading to outages and damage to electrical equipment. These currents can overload transformers and cause them to fail, leading to prolonged blackouts. In 1989, a geomagnetic storm caused a power outage in Quebec, Canada, that lasted for more than nine hours, affecting more than six million people. The event has come to be known as "The Day the Sun Brought Darkness". More recently, in 2017, Hurricane Irma caused widespread power outages in Florida, and space weather was a contributing factor. The hurricane disrupted the power grid, and a subsequent geomagnetic storm caused further damage.
Birds-eye view of a hurricane. Credit: Wirestock Envato.
Space weather also has a significant impact on our communication systems, including satellites and GPS. Satellites are damaged by the energetic particles from solar flares and coronal mass ejections, leading to malfunctions and even complete failures. This leads to disruptions in communication and navigation services, affecting industries such as aviation, shipping, and emergency services. GPS can also be disrupted by space weather, leading to inaccuracies and outages. In 2019, a solar storm caused GPS disruptions in parts of the Arctic, affecting northern aviation and shipping industries around the world.
Spacecraft and Mission Planning
Aerospace professionals need to take space weather into account when planning missions and designing spacecraft. The space environment is hostile, and spacecraft must be designed to withstand the rigors of space weather. For example, spacecraft can be shielded to protect them from the energetic particles that can damage their electronics.
Space weather pillars. Credit: European Space Agency.
Satellites are designed to have redundant systems that can take over in case of a failure due to space weather. Spacecraft are also equipped with instruments to measure space weather and warn the crew inside of potential hazards. For example, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) monitors the sun's activity and provides advance warning of solar flares and coronal mass ejections.
The Impact of Space Weather on Human Health
The effects of space weather are not limited to technology. It can also seriously affect our daily safety and health.
Space weather components & considerations. Credit: European Space Agency.
Astronauts and Radiation Exposure
The charged particles from solar flares and coronal mass ejections can be hazardous to astronauts, leading to increased radiation exposure and an increased risk of cancer. Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) are exposed to 10 times more radiation than people on Earth. The exposure to radiation is a significant concern for long-duration space missions, such as a mission to Mars. NASA is researching ways to mitigate the effects of radiation, such as shielding and medication.
The Impact of Space Weather on Aviation
Another potential impact of space weather is on aviation. During geomagnetic storms, the Earth's magnetic field can be disrupted, leading to inaccurate readings on aircraft instruments. This can lead to dangerous situations for pilots and passengers. Aviation professionals need to take space weather into account when planning flights and designing aircraft.
Mitigating the Impact of Space Weather
Given the potential for space weather to disrupt our technology on Earth, human health, and aviation, it is crucial to develop strategies to mitigate its effects.
Early Warning Systems
One important strategy is to develop early warning systems that can alert us to potential space weather hazards. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) operates the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), which monitors space weather and provides alerts and warnings to government agencies, industry, and the public. The SWPC provides real-time information on space weather conditions and issues warnings of potential impacts on the power grid, communication systems, and GPS.
Another strategy is to design technology with redundant systems that can take over in case of a failure due to space weather. For example, power grids can be designed with backup generators and transformers, and communication systems can be designed with redundant satellites and ground-based infrastructure. This helps to minimize the impact of space weather on critical infrastructure and services.
Research and Development
Finally, research and development are crucial for developing new technologies and strategies to reduce the negative effects of space weather on humans in low-Earth orbit and on Earth. NASA is currently researching new materials that can be used to shield spacecraft from radiation and developing new medication and treatment options to mitigate the effects of radiation on astronauts. Similarly, research is ongoing in the aviation industry to develop new instruments and systems that can operate accurately even in the presence of space weather.
The Bigger Picture
Space weather is a complex and potentially hazardous phenomenon that has significant impacts on our planet and our technology. It is crucial that we understand the effects of space weather and work to develop strategies to mitigate its impact.
By developing early warning systems, designing technology with redundant systems, and investing in research and development, we can live in harmony with the space weather that surrounds us, and reduce damage to our infrastructure, our health, and our safety.
ABOUT UPLIFT AEROSPACE
Uplift Aerospace, Inc., a subsidiary of NRP Stone (Symbol: NRPI), offers manufacturing & logistic services for brands & creators to build innovative products in space. Our integrated services include in-space manufacturing, university research partnerships, and spaceflight mission operations.
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