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.
Two tough, resilient, NASA spacecraft have been orbiting Earth for the past six and a half years, flying repeatedly through a hazardous zone of charged particles around our planet called the Van Allen radiation belts. The twin Van Allen Probes, launched in August 2012, have confirmed scientific theories and revealed new structures and processes at work in these dynamic regions. Now, they're starting a new and final phase in their exploration.
Shortly after 4 a.m. on a crisp, cloudless September morning in 1859, the sky above what is currently Colorado erupted in bright red and green colors. Fooled by the brightness into thinking it was an early dawn, gold-rush miners in the mountainous region of what was then called the Kansas Territory woke up and started making breakfast. What happened in more developed regions was even more disorienting, and carries a warning for the wired high-tech world of the 21st century.
The space surrounding our planet is full of restless charged particles and roiling electric and magnetic fields, which create waves around Earth. One type of wave, plasmaspheric hiss, is particularly important for removing charged particles from the Van Allen radiation belts, a seething coil of particles encircling Earth, which can interfere with satellites and telecommunications. A new study published in Journal of Geophysical Research using data from NASA’s Van Allen Probes spacecraft has discovered that hiss is more complex than previously understood.
Our constantly-changing sun sometimes erupts with bursts of light, solar material, or ultra-fast energized particles — collectively, these events contribute to space weather. In a study published Jan. 30, 2017, in Space Weather, scientists from NASA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, or NCAR, in Boulder, Colorado, have shown that the warning signs of one type of space weather event can be detected tens of minutes earlier than with current forecasting techniques – critical extra time that could help protect astronauts in space.
The dynamic space environment that surrounds Earth – the space our astronauts and spacecraft travel through – can be rattled by huge solar eruptions from the sun, which spew giant clouds of magnetic energy and plasma, a hot gas of electrically charged particles, out into space. The magnetic field of these solar eruptions are difficult to predict and can interact with Earth’s magnetic fields, causing space weather effects.
As technology becomes increasingly vital in our day-to-day lives, we are more susceptible to “space weather”. What begins with dark spots on the Sun’s surface, and magnetic field disruptions in the Sun’s atmosphere, can result in widespread technological disturbance. With our increasing reliance on telecommunications and other technologies, monitoring what happens in space has never been more important.
Our planet is nestled in the center of two immense, concentric doughnuts of powerful radiation: the Van Allen radiation belts, which harbor swarms of charged particles that are trapped by Earth’s magnetic field. On March 17, 2015, an interplanetary shock – a shockwave created by the driving force of a coronal mass ejection, or CME, from the sun – struck Earth’s magnetic field, called the magnetosphere, triggering the greatest geomagnetic storm of the preceding decade. And NASA's Van Allen Probes were there to watch the effects on the radiation belts.
There’s a lot we don’t know about many of the magnetic effects we see throughout the universe. The familiar, beautiful northern lights, for example, are actually a bit of an enigma. They are driven by a mysterious magnetic process in which a huge amount of energy is explosively released when particles from the sun hit the Earth’s magnetosphere. This is so powerful it can even break down the Earth’s magnetic shield that normally protects us from harmful, charged particles.
The sun can erupt with flares more energetic than 30 billion times the yield of all nuclear weapons ever detonated. The energetic particles released by solar flares tunnel a path through our inner solar system with speeds regularly exceeding 6 million kph. If the Earth is unfortunate enough to sweep through the path of these particles, they can cause catastrophic problems by acting like bullets of radiation, damaging electrical and electronic equipment.