NASA scientists have discovered a new method to detect dangerous incoming solar storms tens of minutes before they strike the planet giving humanity extra time to seek protection.
Our sun periodically erupts in dangerous storms, which take the form of solar flares and eruptions of plasma known as coronal mass ejections. These powerful storms send fast-moving solar energetic particles (SEPs) toward Earth, and while the planet’s magnetic field protects people on the surface, astronauts in space remain exposed, according to NASA scientist Chris St. Cyr.
“Robotic spacecraft are usually radiation-hardened to protect against these kinds of events. But humans are still susceptible.”
This January, in a study published in Space Weather, scientists from NASA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research proved it was possible to detect SEPs tens of minutes earlier than before.
Scientists who are paid to watch out for dangerous solar storms and other space weather use a device known as a coronagraph, which blocks out the sun’s light and enables researchers to study the star’s corona, or outer atmosphere.
Normally, astronomers use space-based coronagraphs because ground based devices can be interrupted by cloud cover, bad weather, and the Earth’s rotation. NASA scientists, however, discovered ground-based coronagraphs can deliver data faster and with a much higher time resolution, according to St. Cyr.
“With space-based coronagraphs, we get images back every 20-30 minutes. You’ll see the CME in one frame, and by the time you get the next frame, which contains the information we need to tell how fast it’s moving, the energetic particles have already arrived.”
Using a coronagraph called K-Cor, a High Altitude Observatory situated on top of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii, NASA scientists were able to predict the arrival of energetic particles up to 45 minutes before they hit Earth.
That’s tens of minutes before the solar particles even left the sun’s inner atmosphere.
The next step is for scientists to repeat the experiment over and over to prove the method works as a way to speed space weather predictions, and they’re hoping to improve the process even further.
Right now, images from K-Cor are available to the public via the internet 15 minutes after they’re taken. Researchers, however, are installing a more powerful computer that will be able to process the pictures mere seconds after they’re taken and publish them online within a minute or two, study author Joan Burkepile wrote in Space Weather.
“The near-real-time availability of the high-cadence K-Cor observations in the low corona leads to an obvious question: ‘Why has no one attempted to use a coronagraph as an early warning device for SEP events?'”
The International Space Station sits within the Earth’s magnetosphere so astronauts living there are somewhat protected from the danger, but deep space travelers remain vulnerable.
That’s one reason predicting SEPs, which travel at near the speed of light, will be important for space travel and eventual colonization of the solar system.
Without the advance warning, astronauts working in space, one day living on the moon, or traveling to Mars would be vulnerable to the dangerous radiation, according to NASA engineer Ruthan Lewis.
“The space radiation environment will be a critical consideration for everything in the astronauts’ daily lives…on the journeys between Earth and Mars.”
NASA maintains a fleet of spacecraft that constantly stare at the sun so researchers can better understand just what causes solar eruptions, an area of study known as heliophysics.
The space agency is also working to develop better methods of shielding space travelers from both the sun’s radiation and that found in deep space.
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[Featured Image by NASA/Getty Images]