Mars Mission, Rosetta, International Space Station and the myriad number of man made satellites orbiting the planet, have already made it obvious that the human race has reached an age where it is looking further beyond its home, the Earth. And now, with companies like Virgin Galactic closer to offering sub orbital space trips to one and all (who can afford it), it has become paramount that we look at the weather outside our Earth before embarking on a journey beyond our clouds. But what is space weather like ?
We do know that outer space is a cold cold space and lacks any air. Astronauts head out for space walks in protective suits and a sufficient supply of oxygen, just the way we all saw in the movie Gravity. But it is not just the temperature and lack of air that we need to worry about, it is solar and magnetic activity in outer space that can impact us.
What is Space weather?
Space weather studies the impact of solar radiation and other high energy particles from outer space on the Earth's magnetic field and tries to predict the effect it has on conditions on Earth. The result of of the interaction could be minimal resulting in temporary increase of the Earth's magnetic field or colossal such damages to satellites orbiting around the planet.
Did this begin recently?
Space weather events are nothing new and have been occurring regularly for many many years. It is just that the human presence in near outer space has increased tremendously in recent years and so has our dependence on technology. Extreme space weather events can have damaging effects on electronic equipment that we have put out in space and this can impact our day to day lives.
Impact of Space weather
1. Damage to GPS
The most direct impact of an adverse space weather event would probably affect the Global Positioning System or GPS. The GPS works courtesy of the 24 minisatellites that cover the entire Earth (the principle has been simplified in this post by Melissa on AllSlate ). If an exodus of solar radiation brings down two or three satellites, we would lose our coverage over that area leaving users clueless in their locations, whether they are on land, water or in the air.
2. Loss of Radio Communication
While telecommunication might be booming around the globe, we still rely on radio communication for a large number of our day to day activities. All aircrafts correspond with Air Traffic Control centres using Hi-Frequency (HF) radio communication and an increased energy activity can result in blackout of this communication method.
3. Power blackouts
Increased solar activity has the potential to rapidly vary the Earth's magnetic field as well. Varying magnetic field of the earth can then result in creation of an electric field that will impact voltage stability in high tension electricity transmission cables and transformers. In extreme cases, these fluctuations can cause blackouts for hours like the way the city of Malmoe in Sweden suffered in 2003.
Not only will these disruptions affect day to day lives, correcting these disruptions requires a fair amount of time, effort and money to be spent as well. While replacing a failed transformer might take a few man hours, replacing a satellite requires millions of dollars of funding and months of planning and timely execution.
How can we avoid this?
Unfortunately, there is very little we know about solar activities and their occurrence rates to shield ourselves from its impact. There are only two things that we can do.
a. Make robust devices and more of them.
We need to figure out ways to make the instruments and satellites that we send up in space more robust so that they can withstand such events. The other thing to do would be make more of them. The GPS system actually has 27 satellites that are orbiting the Earth, so in case, some fail, the other can take their place. Similarly, the Russians also have a similar Navigational System in place called GLONASS (supported by most smartphones), which will serve as a back up for users of GPS till the services can be restored.
b. Study Solar activity
We need to understand our Sun in a much better fashion and with this very aim the Met Office in the UK recently opened its Space Weather Operations Center in Exeter. Along with the Space Weather Prediction Center in Colorado, US, the Space Weather Operations Center will forecast the Space Weather for all of us. Why not check the latest Space Weather Prediction now!