Solar Storms Might Confuse Whale Navigation, and Make Them More Likely to Strand Themselves

The Gray Whale is the 10th largest creature alive today, and the 9 creatures larger than it are all whales, too. Gray Whales are known for their epic migration routes, sometimes covering more than 16,000 km (10,000 miles) on their two-way trips between their feeding grounds and their breeding grounds. Researchers don’t have a complete understanding of how whales navigate these great distances, but some evidence suggests that Earth’s magnetism has something to do with it.

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ESA is Considering a Mission to Give Advanced Warnings of Solar Storms

The Sun is not exactly placid, though it appears pretty peaceful in the quick glances we can steal with our naked eyes. In reality though, the Sun is a dynamic, chaotic body, spraying out solar wind and radiation and erupting in great sheets of plasma. Living in a technological society next to all that is a challenge.

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The ESA’s Solar Orbiter, a Mission That Will Chart the Unexplored Polar Regions of the Sun, Just Launched!

In the coming years, a number of will be sent to space for the purpose of answering some of the enduring questions about the cosmos. One of the most pressing is the effect that solar activity and “space weather” events have on planet Earth. By being able to better-predict these, scientists will be able to create better early-warning systems that could prevent damage to Earth’s electrical infrastructure.

This is the purpose of the Solar Orbiter (SolO), an ESA-led mission with strong participation by NASA that launched this morning (Monday, Feb. 10th) from Cape Canaveral, Florida. This is the first “medium-class” mission implemented as part of the ESA’s Cosmic Vision 2015-25 program and will spend the next five years investigating the Sun’s uncharted polar regions to learn more about how the Sun works.

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Destructive Super Solar Storms Hit Us Every 25 Years Or So

Solar storms powerful enough to wreak havoc on electronic equipment strike Earth every 25 years, according to a new study. And less powerful—yet still dangerous—storms occur every three years or so. This conclusion comes from a team of scientists from the the University of Warwick and the British Antarctic Survey.

These powerful storms can disrupt electronic equipment, including communication equipment, aviation equipment, power grids, and satellites.

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Space Weather Forecasts can now give Satellites One Whole Day of Warning when a Killer Solar Storm is Inbound

An artist’s rendering of the Van Allen radiation belts surrounding Earth. The purple, concentric shells represent the inner and outer belts. They completely encircle Earth, but have been cut away in this image to show detail. Image Credit: NASA’s Conceptual Image Lab/Walt Feimer

Earth’s fleet of satellites is in a vulnerable position. When solar activity increases, high-energy particles are directed toward Earth. Our large fleet is in the direct path of all that energy, which can damage them or render them inoperable. But now we have another tool to help us protect our satellites.

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Plans for a Modular Martian Base that Would Provide its own Radiation Shielding

The idea of exploring and colonizing Mars has never been more alive than it is today. Within the next two decades, there are multiple plans to send crewed missions to the Red Planet, and even some highly ambitious plans to begin building a permanent settlement there. Despite the enthusiasm, there are many significant challenges that need to be addressed before any such endeavors can be attempted.

These challenges – which include the effects of low-gravity on the human body, radiation, and the psychological toll of being away from Earth – become all the more pronounced when dealing with permanent bases. To address this, civil engineer Marco Peroni offers a proposal for a  modular Martian base (and a spacecraft to deliver it) that would allow for the colonization of Mars while protecting its inhabitants with artificial radiation shielding.

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Watch the Sun to Know When We’re Going to Have Killer Auroras

To the naked eye, the Sun puts out energy in a continual, steady state, unchanged through human history. (Don’t look at the sun with your naked eye!) But telescopes tuned to different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum reveal the Sun’s true nature: A shifting, dynamic ball of plasma with a turbulent life. And that dynamic, magnetic turbulence creates space weather.

Space weather is mostly invisible to us, but the part we can see is one of nature’s most stunning displays, the auroras. The aurora’s are triggered when energetic material from the Sun slams into the Earth’s magnetic field. The result is the shimmering, shifting bands of color seen at northern and southern latitudes, also known as the northern and southern lights.

This image of the northern lights over Canada was taken by a crew member on board the ISS in Sept. 2017. Image: NASA

There are two things that can cause auroras, but both start with the Sun. The first involves solar flares. Highly-active regions on the Sun’s surface produce more solar flares, which are sudden, localized increase in the Sun’s brightness. Often, but not always, a solar flare is coupled with a coronal mass ejection (CME).

A coronal mass ejection is a discharge of matter and electromagnetic radiation into space. This magnetized plasma is mostly protons and electrons. The CME ejection often just disperses into space, but not always. If it’s aimed in the direction of the Earth, chances are we get increased auroral activity.

The second cause of auroras are coronal holes on the Sun’s surface. A coronal hole is a region on the surface of the Sun that is cooler and less dense than surrounding areas. Coronal holes are the source of fast-moving streams of material from the Sun.

Whether it’s from an active region on the Sun full of solar flares, or whether it’s from a coronal hole, the result is the same. When the discharge from the Sun strikes the charged particles in our own magnetosphere with enough force, both can be forced into our upper atmosphere. As they reach the atmosphere, they give up their energy. This causes constituents in our atmosphere to emit light. Anyone who has witnessed an aurora knows just how striking that light can be. The shifting and shimmering patterns of light are mesmerizing.

The auroras occur in a region called the auroral oval, which is biased towards the night side of the Earth. This oval is expanded by stronger solar emissions. So when we watch the surface of the Sun for increased activity, we can often predict brighter auroras which will be more visible in southern latitudes, due to the expansion of the auroral oval.

This photo is of the aurora australis over New Zealand. Image: Paul Stewart, Public Domain, CC 1.0 Universal.

Something happening on the surface of the Sun in the last couple days could signal increased auroras on Earth, tonight and tomorrow (March 28th, 29th). A feature called a trans-equatorial coronal hole is facing Earth, which could mean that a strong solar wind is about to hit us. If it does, look north or south at night, depending on where your live, to see the auroras.

Of course, auroras are only one aspect of space weather. They’re like rainbows, because they’re very pretty, and they’re harmless. But space weather can be much more powerful, and can produce much greater effects than mere auroras. That’s why there’s a growing effort to be able to predict space weather by watching the Sun.

A powerful enough solar storm can produce a CME strong enough to damage things like power systems, navigation systems, communications systems, and satellites. The Carrington Event in 1859 was one such event. It produced one of the largest solar storms on record.

That storm occurred on September 1st and 2nd, 1859. It was preceded by an increase in sun spots, and the flare that accompanied the CME was observed by astronomers. The auroras caused by this storm were seen as far south as the Caribbean.

Sunspots are dark areas on the surface of the Sun that are cooler than the surrounding areas. They form where magnetic fields are particularly strong. The highly active magnetic fields near sunspots often cause solar flares. Image: NASA/SDO/AIA/HMI/Goddard Space Flight Center

The same storm today, in our modern technological world, would wreak havoc. In 2012, we almost found out exactly how damaging a storm of that magnitude could be. A pair of CMEs as powerful as the Carrington Event came barreling towards Earth, but narrowly missed us.

We’ve learned a lot about the Sun and solar storms since 1859. We now know that the Sun’s activity is cyclical. Every 11 years, the Sun goes through its cycle, from solar maximum to solar minimum. The maximum and minimum correspond to periods of maximum sunspot activity and minimum sunspot activity. The 11 year cycle goes from minimum to minimum. When the Sun’s activity is at its minimum in the cycle, most CMEs come from coronal holes.

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), and the combined ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) are space observatories tasked with studying the Sun. The SDO focuses on the Sun and its magnetic field, and how changes influence life on Earth and our technological systems. SOHO studies the structure and behavior of the solar interior, and also how the solar wind is produced.

Several different websites allow anyone to check in on the behavior of the Sun, and to see what space weather might be coming our way. The NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center has an array of data and visualizations to help understand what’s going on with the Sun. Scroll down to the Aurora forecast to watch a visualization of expected auroral activity.

NASA’s Space Weather site contains all kinds of news about NASA missions and discoveries around space weather. SpaceWeatherLive.com is a volunteer run site that provides real-time info on space weather. You can even sign up to receive alerts for upcoming auroras and other solar activity.

How Bad Can Solar Storms Get?

Our Sun regularly pelts the Earth with all kinds of radiation and charged particles. Just how bad can these solar storms get?

In today’s episode, we’re going to remind you how looking outside of the snow globe can inspire your next existential crisis.

You guys remember the Sun right? Look how happy that little fella is. The Sun is our friend! Life started because of the Sun! Oooh, look, the Sun has a baby face! It’s a beautiful, ball of warmth and goodness, lighting up our skies and bringing happiness into our hearts.

It’s a round yellow circle in crayon. Very stable and firmly edged. Occasionally drawn with a orange lion’s mane for coronal effects. Nothing to be afraid, right?

Wake up sheeple. It’s time to pull back the curtain of the marketing world, big crayon fridge art and the children’s television conspiracy of our brightly glowing neighborhood monstrosity. That thing is more dangerous than you can ever imagine.

You know the Sun is a nuclear reaction right next door. Like it’s right there. RIGHT THERE! It’s a mass of incandescent gas, with a boiling bubbling surface of super-heated hydrogen. It’s filled with a deep yellow rage, expressed every few days by lashing out millions of kilometers into space with fiery death tendrils and blasts of super radiation.

The magnetic field lines on the Sun snap and reconnect, releasing a massive amount of radiation and creating solar flares. Solar plasma constrained in the magnetic loop is instantly released, smashed together and potentially generating x-ray radiation.

“Big deal. I get x-rayed all the time.” you might think. We the mighty humans have mastered the X-ray spectrum! Not so fast puny mortal. Just a single x-ray class flare can blast out more juice than 100 billion nuclear explosions.

 In this image, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) captured an X1.2 class solar flare, peaking on May 15, 2013. Credit: NASA/SDO
In this image, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) captured an X1.2 class solar flare, peaking on May 15, 2013. Credit: NASA/SDO

Then it’s just a quick 8 minute trip to your house, where the radiation hits us with no warning. Solar flares can lead to coronal mass ejections, and they can happen other times too, where huge bubbles of gas are ejected from the Sun and blasted into space. This cosmic goo can take a few hours to get to us, and are also excellent set-ups for nocturnal emission and dutch oven jokes.

Astronomers measure the impact of a solar storm on the Earth using a parameter called DST, or “disturbance storm time”. We measure the amount that the Earth’s protective magnetosphere flexes during a solar storm event. The bigger the negative number, the worse it is.

If we can see an aurora, a geomagnetic storms in the high altitudes, it measures about -50 nanoteslas. The worst storm in the modern era, the one that overloaded our power grid in 1989, measured about -600 nanoteslas.

The most potent solar storm we have on record was so powerful that people saw the Northern Lights as far south as Cuba. Telegraph lines sparked with electricity and telegraph towers caught on fire. This was in 1859 and was clearly named by Syfy’s steampunk division. This was known as the Carrington Event, and estimated in the -800 to -1750 nanotesla range.

Just in time for St. Patrick's Day - a
A spectacular green and red aurora photographed early this morning March 17, 2015, from Donnelly Creek, Alaska. Credit: Sebastian Saarloos

So, how powerful do these things need to be to cook out our meat parts? The good news is contrary to my earlier fear mongering, the most powerful flare our Sun can generate is harmless to life on Earth.

Don’t let your guard down, the Sun is still horribly dangerous. It’ll bake us alive faster than you can say “Hansel und Gretel”. Assuming you can drag that phrase out over a billion years. As far as flares go, and so long as we stay right here, we’ll be fine. We might even see a nice aurora in the sky.

For those of you who use technology on a regular basis, you might not be so lucky. Powerful solar storms can overload power grids and fry satellites. If the Carrington Event happened now, we’d have a lot of power go out, and a small orbital scrapyard of dead satellites.

Astronauts outside the Earth, perhaps bouncing around on the Moon, or traveling to Mars would be in a universe of trouble without a good method of shielding.

The solar flares that the Sun can produce is minuscule compared to other stars out there. In 2014, NASA’s Swift satellite witnessed a flare that generated more than 10,000 times more energy than the most powerful solar flare ever seen.

Solar flare on the surface of the Sun. Image credit: NASA
Solar flare on the surface of the Sun. Image credit: NASA

For a brief moment, the surface of the red dwarf star DG Canum Venaticorum lit up hotter than 200 million degrees Celsius. That’s 12 times hotter than the center of the Sun. A blast that powerful would have scoured all life from the face of the Earth. Except the future colony of tardigrade descendants. Remember, the water bears are always watching.

Young red dwarf stars are renowned for these powerful flares, and this is one of the reasons astronomers think they’re not great candidates for life. It would be hard to survive blast after blast of radiation from these unruly stars. Alternately, planets around these stars are could be living terrariums inspired by the Gamma World RPG.

Breathe easy and don’t worry. Perhaps the Sun is our friend, and it truly does have our best interests at heart.

It’s not a big fan of our technology, though, and it’s ready to battle alongside us when the robot revolution begins. Oh, also, wear sunscreen, as the Sun’s brand of love isn’t all that different from Doctor Manhattan.

Have you ever seen an aurora display? Tell us a cool story in the comments below.

Space Weather Storm Monitoring Satellite Blasts off for Deep Space on SpaceX Rocket

After a 17 year long wait, a new American mission to monitor intense solar storms and warn of impeding space weather disruptions to vital power grids, telecommunications satellites and public infrastructure was launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 on Wednesday, Feb. 11, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to start a million mile journey to its deep space observation post.

The third time proved to be the charm when the Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR science satellite lifted off at 6:03 p.m. EST Wednesday from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The spectacular sunset blastoff came after two scrubs this week forced by a technical problem with the Air Force tracking radar and adverse weather on Sunday and Tuesday.

The $340 million DSCOVR has a critical mission to monitor the solar wind and aid very important forecasts of space weather at Earth at an observation point nearly a million miles from Earth. It will also take full disk color images of the sunlit side of Earth at least six times per day that will be publicly available and “wow” viewers.

Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather.   Credit:  Julian Leek
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather. Credit: Julian Leek

The couch sized probe was targeted to the L1 Lagrange Point, a neutral gravity point that lies on the direct line between Earth and the sun located 1.5 million kilometers (932,000 miles) sunward from Earth. At L1 the gravity between the sun and Earth is perfectly balanced and the satellite will orbit about that spot just like a planet.

L1 is a perfect place for the science because it lies outside Earth’s magnetic environment. The probe will measure the constant stream of solar wind particles from the sun as they pass by.

The DSCOVR spacecraft (3-axis stabilized, 570 kg) will be delivered to the Sun-Earth L1 point, 1.5 million km (1 million miles) from the Earth, directly in front of the Sun. A Halo (Lissajous) orbit will stabilize the craft's position around the L1 point while keeping it outside the radio noise emanating from the Sun. (Illustratin Credit: NASA)
The DSCOVR spacecraft (3-axis stabilized, 570 kg) will be delivered to the Sun-Earth L1 point, 1.5 million km (1 million miles) from the Earth, directly in front of the Sun. A Halo (Lissajous) orbit will stabilize the craft’s position around the L1 point while keeping it outside the radio noise emanating from the Sun. (Illustratin Credit: NASA)

DSCOVR is a joint mission between NOAA, NASA, and the U.S Air Force (USAF) that will be managed by NOAA. The satellite and science instruments are provided by NASA and NOAA. The rocket was funded by the USAF.

The mission is vital because its solar wind observations are crucial to maintaining accurate space weather forecasts to protect US infrastructure such as power grids, aviation, planes in flight, all types of Earth orbiting satellites for civilian and military needs, telecommunications, ISS astronauts and GPS systems.

It will take about 150 days to reach the L1 point and complete satellite and instrument checkouts.

DSCOVR will then become the first operational space weather mission to deep space and function as America’s primary warning system for solar magnetic storms.

It will replace NASA’s aging Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite which is nearly 20 years old and far beyond its original design lifetime.

“DSCOVR is the latest example of how NASA and NOAA work together to leverage the vantage point of space to both understand the science of space weather and provide direct practical benefits to us here on Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

DSCOVR was first proposed in 1998 by then US Vice President Al Gore as the low cost ‘Triana’ satellite to take near continuous views of the Earth’s entire globe to feed to the internet as a means of motivating students to study math and science. It was eventually built as a much more capable Earth science satellite that would also conduct the space weather observations.

But Triana was shelved for purely partisan political reasons and the satellite was placed into storage at NASA Goddard and the science was lost until now.

DSCOVR mission logo.  Credit: NOAA/NASA/U.S. Air Force
DSCOVR mission logo. Credit: NOAA/NASA/U.S. Air Force

DSCOVR is equipped with a suite of four continuously operating solar science and Earth science instruments from NASA and NOAA.

It will make simultaneous scientific observations of the solar wind and the entire sunlit side of Earth.

The 750-kilogram (1250 pound) DSCOVR probe measures 54 inches by 72 inches.

Technician works on NASA Earth science instruments and Earth imaging EPIC camera (white circle) housed on NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) inside NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room in November 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
Technician works on NASA Earth science instruments and Earth imaging EPIC camera (white circle) housed on NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) inside NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room in November 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace

The two Earth science instruments from NASA are the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology Advanced Radiometer (NISTAR).

EPIC will provide true color spectral images of the entire sunlit face of Earth at least six times per day, as viewed from an orbit around L1. They will be publically available within 24 hours via NASA Langley.

It will view the full disk of the entire sunlit Earth from sunrise to sunset and collect a variety of science measurements including on ozone, aerosols, dust and volcanic ash, vegetation properties, cloud heights and more.

Listen to my post launch interview with the BBC about DSCOVR and ESA’s successful IXV launch on Feb. 11.

A secondary objective by SpaceX to recover the Falcon 9 first stage booster on an ocean going barge had to be skipped due to very poor weather and very high waves in the Atlantic Ocean making a safe landing impossible. The stage did successfully complete a soft landing in the ocean.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace

Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather.   Credit:  John Studwell
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather. Credit: John Studwell

Prelaunch view of SpaceX rocket on Cape Canaveral launch pad taken from LC-39 at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Chuck Higgins
Prelaunch view of SpaceX rocket on Cape Canaveral launch pad taken from LC-39 at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Chuck Higgins

What’s The Fastest Way To Die In Space?

Space is a hostile environment for human beings. No part of it will permit you to survive longer than a minute. But what’s the fastest way to die in space?

Just in case you were planning to jump out into the vacuum of space without a spacesuit, I urge you to reconsider. There’s nothing but painful suffocation and death. Do not do it.

You probably wouldn’t be here if you weren’t wondering, just how lethal is space? What are all the ways space is trying to kill you? Space has a Swiss army knife of methods to do you in. You won’t be surprised to learn that classic sci-fi usually had it wrong. If you jumped out into the cold deep void without a protective suit, you wouldn’t pop like a giant pressurized juicy meat pimple. Your blood doesn’t boil, and you don’t flash freeze.

The good news is even though there is a pressure difference, human skin is strong enough to keep your body together. The bad news is you just plain old asphyxiate, almost instantaneously. The human body has about 15 seconds of usable oxygen in the blood. Once you run through that oxygen, you’ll take a quick space nap and then die a few minutes later.

On Earth, you can hold your breath for a few minutes but this gets much harder in space, as the low pressure forces the air out of your lungs. In fact, it would probably be wise to breathe every last bit of air out before you stepped out, since it’s coming out violently, one way or another.

Here’s the amazing thing. If you jumped out into space and could get back into a pressurized environment within a minute or so, you probably wouldn’t suffer any permanent damage, aside from a little bruising, some hypothermia and a really nasty sunburn. Stay out for any longer, though, and the damage will get worse. Beyond a few minutes and you’ll be done.Which is just fine, as you weren’t planning on going out into space without a spacesuit anyway.

An illustration showing the natural barrier Earth gives us against solar radiation. Credit: NASA.
An illustration showing the natural barrier Earth gives us against solar radiation. Credit: NASA.

Unfortunately, even tucked safely in your spacecraft, there are tremendous risks to being away from the comfort of Earth. You’ve got to be worried about radiation. Once a spacecraft leaves the protection of the Earth’s magnetic field, it’s exposed to the high levels constantly streaming through space. A trip from Earth to Mars and back again might increase your overall risk developing a fatal cancer by about 5%, and that’s a risk most astronauts are willing to take. But there are solar storms blasting out from the Sun that could deliver a lethal dose of radiation in just a few hours. Astronauts would need a safe, radiation-shielded location during these solar storms or they’d expire from acute radiation poisoning.

There are many, many other risks from traveling in space. Fire is one of the worst, failure of your oxygen system, access to clean water and food become an obvious problem. Even things we usually don’t think about, like mold building up in the damp environment of a spaceship becomes a problem.

Survive all these immediate hazards, just like here on Earth, and the long term hazards will get you. We have no idea if it’s even possible for the human body to exist in microgravity for longer than a few years. Your bones dissolve, your muscles waste away, and there might be other consequences.

A view of the damaged P6 4B solar panel on the ISS. Image credit: NASA
A view of the damaged P6 4B solar panel on the ISS. Image credit: NASA

So far, nobody is willing to run the experiment long enough to find out. And finally, the fastest way space can kill you is likely impact with debris. Even though space is mostly empty, there’s all kinds of material whizzing around. Every spacecraft is pockmarked with micrometeorite impacts. There are holes punched through the International Space Station’s solar panels. These tiny pieces of rock can be traveling at 10 kilometers per second when they impact the spacecraft.

Spacecraft have layers of protection to absorb smaller particles, but there’s no way to prevent larger objects from causing catastrophic damage. If those layers weren’t there you’d be a short hop skip and a jump from becoming a heavily perforated spongebob spacepants. The solution? You just have to hope they never hit.

There certainly a many ways to quickly die in space, but what’s really amazing to me is how we can actually overcome many of these risks, certainly long enough to reach other worlds in the Solar System. Traveling in space is dangerous and difficult, but the exciting thing is it’s still possible. And one day, we’ll do it.

So, even knowing the risks, would you travel in space?