Can NASA Save Us From Solar Storms?
I have a confession to make: I’m addicted to electricity. I can’t stop using it. Not a day goes by where I’m not turning on a light or charging my phone or transforming water from liquid into a solid through the irresistible power of electricity.
And if I’m being totally honest, you should know that I was using electricity throughout the writing of this article.
I’d go as far to say that the widespread availability of electricity is one of my favorite features of the modern world. It’s in my top ten, easily.
But the Sun could take it way it at any time.
And NASA might be the only thing that can save us.
Space has its own weather — just like we have on good ol’ planet earth — except instead of cloudbursts and cold fronts, space has solar flares and coronal mass ejections. The sun is shedding charged particles of plasma out into the solar system all the time — this is the solar wind. They usually do nothing more than create psychedelic light shows over the north and south poles. This is because the Earth’s magnetic field acts as kind of shield of force field, guiding these high energy particles away from the surface. That’s what you’re seeing when you see the northern lights.
But if the Sun is turbulent enough, it can cause a full-fledged solar storm. These storms can overwhelm the Earth’s magnetic field — like flood waters cresting a dam — and inundate the Earth’s surface with charged particles from the Sun.
That’s what almost happened on July 23, 2012.
In a flash of superheated plasma, a tsunami of charged particles erupted from the Sun’s surface. These particles raced across the inner solar system at millions of miles per hour, an invisible stormfront that could engulf entire planets, and turn out the lights on our civilization.
That’s because these solar storms can induce powerful electrical currents that reach the ground. These cause energy surges can wreak havoc on our power grid. That’s what makes a solar storm like the one that happened in 2012 so dangerous.
And nobody knew it was coming.
If this had occurred a week later the solar storm would have hit Earth head on. Power grids would short, causing mass blackouts. If your water depends on an electric pump, your toilet wouldn’t flush.
But the storm missed. And we wouldn’t have even known how lucky we were if it weren’t for the STEREO-A spacecraft.
The STEREO mission is actually two spacecrafts — STEREO A and B. One follows the Earth as it orbits the Sun while the other leads the way. Both were put there by NASA to monitor the Sun.
If a solar storm were to hit anything, you’d want it to hit one of these spacecraft.
And that’s just what happened in July of 2012 — giving NASA an unprecedented look into the power of these solar storms.
Major storms have hit the Earth several times in the recent past.
One of the strongest we know of was the Carrington Event of 1859. Named for the British astronomer who observed the solar flare that kicked off the storm, the Carrington Event was caused by a coronal mass ejection or CME. A CME is an explosion of plasma from the Sun’s surface. This plasma is composed of charged particles that enter the solar wind and wash over the solar system. It took less than a day for the Carrington storm to reach Earth. It caused auroras to be visible as far as south as Hawaii and Colombia and fried newly installed telegraph systems across Europe and North America.
But one of the the strongest events to hit the Earth during modern times was in 1989, when a solar storm took out the power at a hydroelectric facility in Quebec, plunging much of the province into darkness for nine hours. Satellites lost control, short wave radio communications were jammed, and the space shuttle Discovery experienced technical glitches because of the overload of charged particles flowing through its systems.
If a storm like the Carrington event hit today, it could knock out the power for millions of people. In a matter of seconds, entire continents could be sent back to the 18th century.
And trust me — absolutely nobody wants to go back to the 18th century.
Scientists have estimated that there’s a 1 in 8 chance a storm of this size could hit the Earth in the next ten years.
So understanding and predicting these storms is of the utmost importance
Even though we’ve been observing the Sun’s activity since before the Carrington event of 1859, the exact physics behind what causes and creates these storms is little known.
Now the Parker Solar Probe is going to take NASA’s attempts to forecast solar storms a step further by going to their source — the Sun.
Even though the Sun is by far the biggest, brightest object in the sky, much of how it works remains a glorious mystery.
The Parker Solar Probe will help to fill in those gaps. But it’s going to have to do something no spacecraft has ever done before — touch the sun.
And that means it needs to be the toughest spacecraft NASA has ever built.
Boasting a heat shield made of carbon composite materials and cables insulated by sapphire, the Parker Solar Probe will come closer to the Sun than any other scientific instrument. In fact, its trajectory brings it inside the outermost layer of the Sun’s atmosphere — the Corona.
The Corona is the fuzzy halo of plasma that surrounds the Sun. It reaches millions of kilometers out into space and is very diffuse but much hotter than the surface — exceeding millions of degrees.
And we don’t know why.
It’s one of the many questions the Parker Solar Probe hopes to answer. And knowing more about how the Sun’s turbulent atmosphere works, could help NASA forecast these solar storms just like meteorologists forecast hurricanes on good ol’ planet Earth.
As of now, there’s not much we could do if a solar storm was headed in our direction.
But the ability to track and forecast these storms would at least give us time to prepare. Utilities would have to shutdown the power grid. This would protect sensitive electronics from electrical surges induced by the rain of charged particles.
But turning off the power isn’t our only line of defense. We could install faraday cages around crucial pieces of equipment. These enclosures would shield our electronics from the electromagnetic radiation a solar storm would bombard the planet with.
Having replacement electrical transformers and backup equipment on hand would reduce the time of blackouts caused by these storms.
Upgrading the power grid to be more responsive to electrical surges would help as well. That way we could ease the stress these solar storms can inflict on our transformers and substations. Making a smarter, more flexible power grid isn’t just good for solar storms — it’s imperative for renewable energy. Solar and wind power generation fluxuates as the wind speed or daylight changes. The grid needs to be able to store excess renewable energy so that it can be used when it is needed. And this ability to handle excess energy will come in handy if a solar storm hits.
But that would mean updating our seriously outdated, and in some cases, deteriorating power grid. And there doesn’t seem to be much movement in that direction right now.
So until then, when the next solar storm strikes, we’ll just have to batten down the hatches and wait for the storm to pass.
Let’s hope we see it coming first.
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