One of the theoretical solutions to Fermi’s Paradox is the Rare Earth theory.
Fermi’s Paradox, if you’re unfamiliar, is the quandary that asks if intelligent life is probable in the galaxy and/or universe — why have we not seen evidence of it? (Aside from our own?)
There are so called “solutions” to this question and you can research them if you care to, but the one that I find most compelling is the one that supposes “Earth is rare.” Isaac Arthur’s Youtube channel has a Fermi’s Paradox compendium video which explains, in detail, this and the other solutions (Video).
There is one aspect of this Rare Earth solution that seems to go unexamined. And it is this: That Coronal Mass Ejections, CMEs, will have a severe and recurring negative affect on any technologically advanced society.
Humanity has experienced just one CME of a size to do it serious damage. You may or may not be familiar with the 1859 Carrington Event and the government reports on the next CME that will hit us (as well as the July 2012 CME that barely missed us), but you should.
CMEs have the potential, some think slight, but I think enormous, to disrupt electricity generation and transmission. I believe few people, if anybody, have theorized the extent to which a CME (every few hundred years — or more frequently) will have on an advanced technological society…
Or what it will have on OUR advanced technological society. Our electricity dependent civilization has never experienced a CME of Carrington level.
The solution to Fermi’s Paradox would hold that CMEs slamming electricity enabled civilizations anywhere in the galaxy or universe, over and over, each time knocking them back hundreds of years of their progress, wasting resources (like irreplaceable fossil fuels) will, in the end, suppress such civilizations from becoming electro-magnetically communicating / space-faring species.
Periodic coronal mass ejections would continually reset alien intelligence species’ societal progress. After every CME that wipes out their electricity generation and transmission capability their society will collapse. Over and over. CME’s happen again and again, in cycles.
The next massive Carrington level CME to strike Earth is going to, potentially, collapse our technological society. If a pair of massive CMEs were to hit during our summer, 10 to 16 hours apart — say goodbye to civilization in the Northern Hemisphere.
Here’s a theoretical scenario that explores this possibility:
Blue Across the Sea – Epilogue
Most experts who analyze the impact of CMEs, I think, underestimate the destructive force they pose. I believe that, specifically, the millions of miles of wire strung in every city and state, in every business building and home, in every subway, train station, in every airliner, in every container ship, in every facet of society — WILL be affected. WILL react to the magnetic plasma attack that a CME represents. And that this reality, here-to-for unexamined and unrealized, will collapse human society.
When it happens to us then it could happen to any galactic intelligent species. This, in my opinion, represents a valid solution to the Fermi Paradox.
15 thoughts on “CMEs: Fermi Paradox solution?”
Ethan’s Starts with a Bang:
World’s oldest trees reveal the largest solar storm in history
1859’s Carrington event gave us a preview of how catastrophic the Sun could be for humanity. But it could get even worse than we imagined.
While humanity reckons with many problems here on Earth — war, political turmoil, an ongoing pandemic, all alongside the energy, climate, and water crises — it’s important to remember just how relentless the Universe can be. While earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanoes, hurricanes and other natural disasters haven’t exactly ceased in the meantime, there’s a looming threat for which we’re completely unprepared: a solar storm. Without any mitigations, widespread electrical fires and power station failures could come with damages costing of trillions of dollars, impacting the lives of of billions.
Historically, the largest recorded solar event occurred back in 1859: the Carrington event. But more than a millennium prior to that, an even stronger cosmic event struck Earth. We know this because, back in the years spanning 774–775, there was a tremendous spike in the presence of carbon-14 in Earth’s atmosphere, and the evidence is found in tree rings all across the world. After a full decade investigating the possible causes of this spike, the scientific conclusion we’ve reached is that the Sun was to blame. A solar storm from more than 1200 years ago may have been the most powerful one recorded in natural history. The Earth, as a result, may be at an even greater risk from a worst-case solar storm than anyone thought possible.
The science of solar astronomy — where we directly observe the Sun — is a relatively young one. Although sunspots had been referred to and recorded since the 4th century BC, they were only identified as being inherent to the Sun during the time of Galileo in the early 1600s. The observations that these spots not only appeared on the Sun, but migrated across its surface as it rotated, were the first to robustly challenge Aristotle’s notion that the Sun was perfect: without either flaw or motion.
The connection of sunspots to solar flares wouldn’t be made until 1859, when solar astronomer Richard Carrington, while tracking a large, irregular sunspot region, observed what he called a “white light flare” that lasted for approximately five minutes. 18 hours later, the largest geomagnetic storm in recent history occurred on Earth, resulting in:
worldwide auroral displays, including at the equator,
miners awakening in the middle of the night, thinking it was dawn,
reports of aurorae so bright that newspapers could be read by their light,
and electrical systems, such as telegraphs, began sparking and igniting fires, even when they were completely disconnected and unplugged from any power source.
Given the tremendous development, subsequently, of humanity’s electric and electronic infrastructure, it’s easy to see how a similar event, if it were to occur today, could lead to an unprecedented catastrophe.
There have been smaller solar storms, subsequently, that have impacted humanity. A three-day geomagnetic storm in 1921 sparked a number of fires worldwide, including near New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. A 1960 solar event caused widespread radio disruption, and then 1972’s solar storms caused major electrical and communications grid disturbances, even causing the accidental detonation of numerous naval mines. Meanwhile 1989’s geomagnetic storm caused massive power outages and substantial damage to the electrical grid.
In July of 2012, the largest solar eruption since 1859 occurred, with intrinsic properties comparable to the Carrington event. Fortunately, the ejecta missed Earth as the Sun was rotated out-of-position; if the outburst had occurred 9 days earlier, it would likely have caused the most expensive natural disaster in human history.
What’s less clear, however, is how it’s possible to reconstruct what occurred more than 1000 years ago, when solar storms had no negative consequences for humanity and solar astronomy was a practically non-existent science. What was once mere guesswork suddenly became a scientific detective story thanks to an unlikely witness: ancient cedar trees.
Trees, quite famously, grow from the inside-out, producing a new set of rings in their trunks with each passing year. The past 3000 years, in particular, have been particularly well-documented thanks to a landmark data set synthesized from tree-ring data that spans the globe. Carbon is one of the most important elements found in all organic matter, derived either from the air (for most plants) or from the carbon-based matter consumed (by most animals) for food. Carbon comes in three varieties:
carbon-12, with 6 protons and 6 neutrons in its nucleus, which accounts for most naturally occurring carbon,
carbon-13, with 6 protons and 7 neutrons in its nucleus, representing about 1.1% of naturally occurring carbon,
and carbon-14, with 6 protons and 8 neutrons in its nucleus, which is radioactive, possessing a half-life of about 5700 years.
If the only source of carbon were the material that Earth initially formed from some 4.5 billion years ago, there would be no carbon-14 at all, as it would have all decayed away. But there is carbon-14 on Earth, as approximately 1 out of every one trillion carbon atoms has eight neutrons inside its nucleus. We didn’t figure out why until the 20th century: because the Earth is constantly being bombarded by high-energy particles from space.
From all sorts of cosmic sources — stars (including the Sun), white dwarfs, neutron stars, black holes, and even galaxies beyond the Milky Way — high-energy particles are emitted, and some of them collide with Earth’s atmosphere. When they do, they strike the atoms that are present there: mostly nitrogen and oxygen. Those collisions often wind up producing a cascade of particles, including photons, electrons, positrons (the antimatter counterparts of electrons), unstable particles like mesons and muons, along with the common and familiar protons and neutrons.
The neutron, when it comes to carbon-14, is all-important. Most of Earth’s atmosphere (78%) is made of nitrogen gas: a diatomic molecule containing two nitrogen atoms apiece. Nitrogen typically possesses 7 protons and 7 neutrons in its nucleus, but when a neutron strikes it, there’s a finite probability of a replacement reaction occurring, with that neutron replacing one of the protons. Whenever this occurs, the nucleus transmutes from a nitrogen atom (with 7 protons and 7 neutrons) into a carbon atom (with 6 protons and 8 neutrons): specifically, a carbon-14 atom.
From the time it’s produced all the way up until it decays, each carbon-14 atom will behave just like its stable cousins carbon-12 and carbon-13. It readily forms carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, and gets mixed throughout the atmosphere and the oceans. It gets incorporated into all living organisms exactly as any other form of carbon would, until it reaches equilibrium concentrations with the surrounding environment.
It’s only when an organism dies — or, in the case of organisms like trees, its annual/seasonal ring is fully formed — that no new carbon-14 can enter it. At that point, the amount of carbon-14 inside of it is at a maximum, and from hereon out, it decays just as you’d expect: exponentially and probabilistically, with an overall half-life of ~5700 years.
The way we carbon-date organisms is by measuring the current carbon-14 to carbon-12 ratio. Since the ratio of those two species to one another, at any given time, is extremely stable (it stays at about 1-part-in-a-trillion over time, with variations at only the 0.6% level from year-to-year), measuring the carbon-14/carbon-12 ratio at any time allows us to determine how much time has passed since that organism stopped uptaking new carbon-14.
That’s why measuring tree-rings — and, in particular, the measurement of tree-rings in Japanese cedar trees that were alive in the years 774–775 — gave us such a scientific shock when we analyzed them. Over the past 3,000 years, there were only four brief periods where the carbon-14 content of trees increased by more than 3% over the timespan of a decade.
One of them was recent: in the 20th century, which was caused by the open-air detonation of the world’s first nuclear weapons.
Two of them were relatively low in magnitude, and so aren’t the best to analyze.
But one such transition occurred abruptly and with an incredibly large magnitude. From 774 to 775, the carbon-14 content increased a staggering 12%, and did so all at once. This “spike” is about 20 times as large as any other natural variations that were seen to occur on year-to-year timescales, and was quickly confirmed to exist in other places around the world. Other trees from around the world, including in Germany, Russia, New Zealand and even North America also showed this same spike, indicating that the carbon-14 spike was a worldwide phenomenon.
The fact that carbon-14 levels rose is interesting, but isn’t compelling enough, on its own, to reveal a solar storm as the underlying cause. Sure, solar activity is one possibility, but cosmic flares, gamma-ray bursts, or even receiving a direct hit from a black hole jet or collimated supernova event could also cause a spike in carbon-14. However, we have other historical and scientific evidence, and when you add them all together, a solar event is the only reasonable conclusion.
Historically, a “red crucifix in the heavens” was recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 774, which could refer to either a supernova (although no remnant has ever been found) or an auroral event. At almost the exact same time, in 775, Chinese observers reported seeing an anomalous “thunderstorm,” widely suspected to refer to an equatorial auroral event, as no other such “thunderstorm” was ever reported as such.
Meanwhile, the scientific tree-ring data can be combined with ice-core data recovered from Antarctica. While the tree-rings show a spike in carbon-14 from 774 to 775, the ice core data shows a corresponding spike in radioactive beryllium-10 and chlorine-36, which suggest an association with a strong, energetic event of solar particles.
The other two spikes recorded over the past 3000 years correspond to potential solar activity events as well: one from 993 to 994, and one from as far ago as about 660 BC. All three of these events can be unified by a common cause: a rapid ejection of protons from the Sun. Gamma-ray bursts and supernovae don’t produce enough protons, so those explanations are disfavored. Optically invisible events, like extragalactic cosmic flares or a black hole’s jet, wouldn’t have produced coincident historical observations, and so those are disfavored as well. The only option that explains all of the observations, together, is a solar storm.
The spike from 774 to 775 is by far the largest one observed. From the properties of the tree-ring and the ice-core data that we’ve taken, we can even compare the flare that caused it to 1859’s Carrington event, and the results are truly incredible. While the Carrington event is the most powerful solar flare ever recorded in modern times, a full analysis of the data suggests that this 774–775 event, from more than 1200 years ago, may have been up to or even more than ten times as powerful. Although the data is much worse, there’s new evidence just published this year that suggest a solar storm from ~9200 years ago may have even been more powerful than the 774–775 event.
It’s vitally important, when we consider the dangers we face from a potentially devastating solar storm, that we neither exaggerate nor downplay the threats that our own Sun poses. Under normal circumstances, the Sun emits charged particles, with magnetic events driving the release of an occasional flare or an even less common coronal mass ejection. On rare occasion, these emitted particle streams are high-energy and move rapidly, traversing the Sun-Earth distance in under a day. And if the alignment is just perfectly wrong with the flare’s particles striking the Earth directly and the surface solar magnetic field perfectly anti-aligned with Earth’s self-generated magnetic field a terrestrial disaster will ensue.
Up until recently, we thought that a Carrington-like event would be a worst-case scenario. But more recent evidence now indicates that solar storms come in varieties that can be ten times as strong as 1859’s Carrington event, with correspondingly more dire consequences for our infrastructure, both on the ground and in orbit around our planet. From a catastrophic cascade of satellites in low-Earth orbit to widespread electrical fires to weeks-long durations without power, the impact on humanity will be felt for decades or even longer.
Unless we prepare our power grid, our energy distribution systems, our space infrastructure, and the citizens of Earth to be ready for the inevitable day where such a flare strikes us, we’ll pay the catastrophic costs all at once. It’s up to us, collectively, to take the necessary preparatory actions to be ready. Otherwise, when it happens, our only avenue will be to pick up the pieces of our civilization and, if we can, attempt to rebuild.
Here Comes the Sun—to End Civilization
To a photon, the sun is like a crowded nightclub. It’s 27 million degrees inside and packed with excited bodies—helium atoms fusing, nuclei colliding, positrons sneaking off with neutrinos. When the photon heads for the exit, the journey there will take, on average, 100,000 years. (There’s no quick way to jostle past 10 septillion dancers, even if you do move at the speed of light.) Once at the surface, the photon might set off solo into the night. Or, if it emerges in the wrong place at the wrong time, it might find itself stuck inside a coronal mass ejection, a mob of charged particles with the power to upend civilizations.
This article appears in the July/August 2022 issue. Subscribe to WIRED.Photograph: Jessica Chou
The cause of the ruckus is the sun’s magnetic field. Generated by the churning of particles in the core, it originates as a series of orderly north-to-south lines. But different latitudes on the molten star rotate at different rates—36 days at the poles, and only 25 days at the equator. Very quickly, those lines stretch and tangle, forming magnetic knots that can puncture the surface and trap matter beneath them. From afar, the resulting patches appear dark. They’re known as sunspots. Typically, the trapped matter cools, condenses into plasma clouds, and falls back to the surface in a fiery coronal rain. Sometimes, though, the knots untangle spontaneously, violently. The sunspot turns into the muzzle of a gun: Photons flare in every direction, and a slug of magnetized plasma fires outward like a bullet.
The sun has played this game of Russian roulette with the solar system for billions of years, sometimes shooting off several coronal mass ejections in a day. Most come nowhere near Earth. It would take centuries of human observation before someone could stare down the barrel while it happened. At 11:18 am on September 1, 1859, Richard Carrington, a 33-year-old brewery owner and amateur astronomer, was in his private observatory, sketching sunspots—an important but mundane act of record-keeping. That moment, the spots erupted into a blinding beam of light. Carrington sprinted off in search of a witness. When he returned, a minute later, the image had already gone back to normal. Carrington spent that afternoon trying to make sense of the aberration. Had his lens caught a stray reflection? Had an undiscovered comet or planet passed between his telescope and the star? While he stewed, a plasma bomb silently barreled toward Earth at several million miles per hour.
When a coronal mass ejection comes your way, what matters most is the bullet’s magnetic orientation. If it has the same polarity as Earth’s protective magnetic field, you’ve gotten lucky: The two will repel, like a pair of bar magnets placed north-to-north or south-to-south. But if the polarities oppose, they will smash together. That’s what happened on September 2, the day after Carrington saw the blinding beam.
ILLUSTRATION: MARK PERNICE
Electrical current raced through the sky over the western hemisphere. A typical bolt of lightning registers 30,000 amperes. This geomagnetic storm registered in the millions. As the clock struck midnight in New York City, the sky turned scarlet, shot through with plumes of yellow and orange. Fearful crowds gathered in the streets. Over the continental divide, a bright-white midnight aurora roused a group of Rocky Mountain laborers; they assumed morning had arrived and began to cook breakfast. In Washington, DC, sparks leaped from a telegraph operator’s forehead to his switchboard as his equipment suddenly magnetized. Vast sections of the nascent telegraph system overheated and shut down.
The Carrington Event, as it’s known today, is considered a once-in-a-century geomagnetic storm—but it took just six decades for another comparable blast to reach Earth. In May 1921, train-control arrays in the American Northeast and telephone stations in Sweden caught fire. In 1989, a moderate storm, just one-tenth the strength of the 1921 event, left Quebec in the dark for nine hours after overloading the regional grid. In each of these cases, the damage was directly proportional to humanity’s reliance on advanced technology—more grounded electronics, more risk.
When another big one heads our way, as it could at any time, existing imaging technology will offer one or two days’ notice. But we won’t understand the true threat level until the cloud reaches the Deep Space Climate Observatory, a satellite about a million miles from Earth. It has instruments that analyze the speed and polarity of incoming solar particles. If a cloud’s magnetic orientation is dangerous, this $340 million piece of equipment will buy humanity—with its 7.2 billion cell phones, 1.5 billion automobiles, and 28,000 commercial aircraft—at most one hour of warning before impact.
ILLUSTRATION: MARK PERNICE
Activity on the solar surface follows a cycle of roughly 11 years. At the beginning of each cycle, clusters of sunspots form at the middle latitudes of both solar hemispheres. These clusters grow and migrate toward the equator. Around the time they’re most active, known as solar maximum, the sun’s magnetic field flips polarity. The sunspots wane, and solar minimum comes. Then it happens all over again. “I don’t know why it took 160 years of cataloging data to realize that,” says Scott McIntosh, a blunt-speaking Scottish astrophysicist who serves as deputy director of the US National Center for Atmospheric Research. “It hits you right in the fucking face.”
Today, in the 25th solar cycle since regular record-keeping began, scientists don’t have much to show beyond that migration pattern. They don’t fully understand why the poles flip. They cannot explain why some sunspot cycles are as short as nine years while others last 14. They cannot reliably predict how many sunspots will form or where coronal mass ejections will occur. What is clear is that a big one can happen in any kind of cycle: In the summer of 2012, during the historically quiet Cycle 24, two mammoth coronal mass ejections narrowly missed Earth. Still, a more active cycle increases the chances of that near miss becoming a direct hit.
Without a guiding theory of solar dynamics, scientists tend to take a statistical approach, relying on strong correlations and after-the-fact rationales to make their predictions. One of the more influential models, which offers respectable predictive power, uses the magnetic strength of the sun’s polar regions as a proxy for the vigor of the following cycle. In 2019, a dozen scientists empaneled by NASA predicted that the current solar cycle will peak with 115 sunspots in July 2025—well below the historical average of 179.
McIntosh, who was not invited to join the NASA panel, calls this “made-up physics.” He believes the old-school models are concerned with the wrong thing—sunspots, rather than the processes that create them. “The magnetic cycle is what you should be trying to model, not the derivative of it,” he says. “You have to explain why sunspots magically appear at 30 degrees latitude.”
McIntosh’s attempt to do that goes back to 2002, when, at the behest of a postdoctoral mentor, he began plotting tiny ultraviolet concentrations on the solar surface, known as brightpoints. “I think my boss knew what I would find if I let a full cycle pass,” he recalls. “By 2011, I was like, holy fuck.” He found that brightpoints originate at higher latitudes than sunspots do but follow the same path to the equator. To him, this implied that sunspots and brightpoints are twin effects of the same underlying phenomenon, one not found in astrophysics textbooks.
His grand unified theory, developed over a decade, goes something like this: Every 11 years, when the sun’s polarity flips, a magnetic band forms near each pole, wrapped around the circumference of the star. These bands exist for a couple of decades, slowly migrating toward the equator, where they meet in mutual destruction. At any given time, there are usually two oppositely charged bands in each hemisphere. They counteract each other, which promotes relative calm at the surface. But magnetic bands don’t all live to be the same age. Some reach what McIntosh calls “the terminator” with unusual speed. When this happens, the younger bands are left alone for a few years, without the moderating influence of the older bands, and they have a chance to raise hell.
McIntosh and his colleague Mausumi Dikpati believe that terminator timing is the key to forecasting sunspots—and, by extension, coronal mass ejections. The faster one set of bands dies out, the more dramatic the next cycle will be.
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The most recent terminator, their data suggests, happened on December 13, 2021. In the days that followed, magnetic activity near the sun’s equator dissipated (signaling the death of one set of bands) while the number of sunspots at midlatitude rapidly doubled (signaling the solo reign of the remaining bands). Because this terminator arrived slightly sooner than expected, McIntosh predicts above-average activity for the current solar cycle, peaking at around 190 sunspots.
A clear victor in the modeling wars could emerge later this year. But McIntosh is already thinking ahead to the next thing—tools that can detect where a sunspot will emerge and how likely it is to burst. He yearns for a set of satellites orbiting the sun—a few at the poles and a few around the equator, like the ones used to forecast terrestrial weather. The price tag for such an early-warning system would be modest, he argues: eight craft at roughly $30 million each. But will anyone fund it? “I think until Cycle 25 goes bananas,” he says, “nobody’s going to give a shit.”
When the next solar storm approaches Earth and the deep-space satellite provides its warning—maybe an hour in advance, or maybe 15 minutes, if the storm is fast-moving—alarms will sound on crewed spacecraft. Astronauts will proceed to cramped modules lined with hydrogen-rich materials like polyethylene, which will prevent their DNA from being shredded by protons in the plasma. They may float inside for hours or days, depending on how long the storm endures.
The plasma will begin to flood Earth’s ionosphere, and the electron bombardment will cause high-frequency radio to go dark. GPS signals, which are transmitted via radio waves, will fade with it. Cell phone reception zones will shrink; your location bubble on Google Maps will expand. As the atmosphere heats up, it will swell, and satellites will drag, veer off course, and risk collision with each other and space debris. Some will fall out of orbit entirely. Most new satellites are equipped to endure some solar radiation, but in a strong enough storm, even the fanciest circuit board can fry. When navigation and communication systems fail, the commercial airline fleet—about 10,000 planes in the sky at any given time—will attempt a simultaneous grounding. Pilots will eyeball themselves into a flight pattern while air traffic controllers use light signals to guide the planes in. Those living near military installations may see government aircraft scrambling overhead; when radar systems jam, nuclear defense protocols activate.
Through a weird and nonintuitive property of electromagnetism, the electricity coursing through the atmosphere will begin to induce currents at Earth’s surface. As those currents race through the crust, they will seek the path of least resistance. In regions with resistive rock (in the US, especially the Pacific Northwest, Great Lakes, and Eastern Seaboard), the most convenient route is upward, through the electrical grid.
The weakest points in the grid are its intermediaries—machines called transformers, which take low-voltage current from a power plant, convert it to a higher voltage for cheap and efficient transport, and convert it back down again so that it can be piped safely to your wall outlets. The largest transformers, numbering around 2,000 in the United States, are firmly anchored into the ground, using Earth’s crust as a sink for excess voltage. But during a geomagnetic storm, that sink becomes a source. Most transformers are only built to handle alternating current, so storm-induced direct current can cause them to overheat, melt, and even ignite. As one might expect, old transformers are at higher risk of failure. The average American transformer is 40 years old, pushed beyond its intended lifespan.
Modeling how the grid would fail during another Carrington-class storm is no easy task. The features of individual transformers—age, configuration, location—are typically considered trade secrets. Metatech, an engineering firm frequently contracted by the US government, offers one of the more dire estimates. It finds that a severe storm, on par with events in 1859 or 1921, could destroy 365 high-voltage transformers across the country—about one-fifth of those in operation. States along the East Coast could see transformer failure rates ranging from 24 percent (Maine) to 97 percent (New Hampshire). Grid failure on this scale would leave at least 130 million people in the dark. But the exact number of fried transformers may matter less than their location. In 2014, The Wall Street Journal reported findings from an unreleased Federal Energy Regulatory Commission report on grid security: If just nine transformers were to blow out in the wrong places, it found, the country could experience coast-to-coast outages for months.
Prolonged national grid failure is new territory for humankind. Documents from an assortment of government agencies and private organizations paint a dismal picture of what that would look like in the United States. Homes and offices will lose heating and cooling; water pressure in showers and faucets will drop. Subway trains will stop mid-voyage; city traffic will creep along unassisted by stoplights. Oil production will grind to a halt, and so will shipping and transportation. The blessing of modern logistics, which allows grocery stores to stock only a few days’ worth of goods, will become a curse. Pantries will thin out within a few days. The biggest killer, though, will be water. Fifteen percent of treatment facilities in the country serve 75 percent of the population—and they rely on energy-intensive pumping systems. These pumps not only distribute clean water but also remove the disease- and chemical-tainted sludge constantly oozing into sewage facilities. Without power, these waste systems could overflow, contaminating remaining surface water.
As the outage goes on, health care facilities will grow overwhelmed. Sterile supplies will run low, and caseloads will soar. When backup batteries and generators fail or run out of power, perishable medications like insulin will spoil. Heavy medical hardware—dialysis machines, imaging devices, ventilators—will cease to function, and hospital wards will resemble field clinics. With death tolls mounting and morgues losing refrigeration, municipalities will face grave decisions about how to safely handle bodies.
This is roughly the point in the worst-case scenario when the meltdowns at nuclear power plants begin. These facilities require many megawatts of electricity to cool their reactor cores and spent fuel rods. Today, most American plants run their backup systems on diesel. Koroush Shirvan, a nuclear safety expert at MIT, warns that many reactors could run into trouble if outages last longer than a few weeks.
ILLUSTRATION: MARK PERNICE
If you thumb through enough government reports on geomagnetic storms, you’ll find that one name comes up almost every time: John G. Kappenman. He has published 50 scientific papers, spoken before Congress and NATO, and advised half a dozen federal agencies and commissions. The soft-spoken utility veteran is the man behind the cataclysmic Metatech projections, and he is either a visionary or an alarmist, depending on whom you ask. Kappenman spent the first two decades of his career climbing the ladder at Minnesota Power, learning the ins and outs of the utility industry. In 1998, he joined Metatech, where he advised governments and energy companies on space weather and grid resilience.
His end-of-days predictions first gained national traction in 2010, setting off such alarm that the Department of Homeland Security enlisted JASON, an elite scientific advisory group, to pull together a counter-study. “We are not convinced that Kappenman’s worst-case scenario is possible,” the authors concluded in their 2011 report. Notably, however, JASON did not challenge Kappenman’s work on its merits, nor did the group offer a competing model. Rather, its objections were rooted in the fact that Metatech’s models are proprietary, and utility industry secrecy makes it hard to run national grid simulations. Still, the authors echoed Kappenman’s essential conclusion: The US grid is dramatically underprepared for a major storm, and operators should take immediate action to harden their transformers.
The good news is that a technical fix already exists. Mitigating this threat could be as simple as outfitting vulnerable transformers with capacitors, relatively inexpensive devices that block the flow of direct current. During the 1989 storm in Quebec, the grid fell offline and stopped conducting electricity before the current could inflict widespread damage. One close call was enough, though. In the years after, Canada spent more than $1 billion on reliability upgrades, including capacitors for its most vulnerable transformers. “To cover the entirety of the US, you’re probably in the ballpark of a few billion dollars,” Kappenman says. “If you spread that cost out, it would equal a postage stamp per year per customer.” A 2020 study by the Foundation for Resilient Societies arrived at a similar figure for comprehensive grid hardening: about $500 million a year for 10 years.
To date, however, American utility companies haven’t widely deployed current-blocking devices to the live grid. “They’ve only done things, like moving to higher and higher operating voltages”—for cheaper transmission—“that greatly magnify their vulnerability to these storms,” Kappenman tells me.
Tom Berger, former director of the US government’s Space Weather Prediction Center, also expressed doubts about grid operators. “When I talk to them, they tell me they understand space weather, and they’re ready,” he says. But Berger’s confidence waned after the February 2021 collapse of the Texas power grid, which killed hundreds of people, left millions of homes and businesses without heat, and caused about $200 billion in damage. That crisis was brought on by nothing more exotic than a big cold snap. “We heard the same thing,” Berger says. “‘We understand winter; it’s no problem.’”
I reached out to 12 of the country’s largest utility companies, requesting information on specific steps taken to mitigate damage from a major geomagnetic event. American Electric Power, the country’s largest transmission network, was the only company to share concrete measures, which it says include regularly upgrading hardware, redirecting current during a storm, and quickly replacing equipment after an event. Two other companies, Consolidated Edison and Exelon, claim to have outfitted their systems with geomagnetic monitoring sensors and be instructing their operators in unspecified “procedures.” Florida Power & Light declined to meaningfully comment, citing security risks. The other eight did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
At this point, curious minds may wonder whether utility companies are even required to plan for geomagnetic storms. The answer is complicated, in a uniquely American way. In 2005, when George W. Bush, a former oil executive, occupied the Oval Office, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, which included a grab bag of giveaways to the oil and gas industry. It rescinded much of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s authority to regulate the utility industry. Reliability standards are now developed and enforced by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation—a trade association that represents the interests of those same companies.
Some find the NERC reliability standards laughable. (Two interviewees audibly laughed when asked about them.) Kappenman objected to the first set of standards, proposed in 2015, on the grounds that they were too lenient—they didn’t require utilities to prepare for a storm on par with 1859 or 1921. Berger took issue too, but for a different reason: The standards made no mention of storm duration. The ground-based effects of the Carrington Event lasted four or five consecutive days; a transformer built to withstand 10 seconds of current is very different from one ready for 120 hours.
Under pressure from the federal government, NERC enacted stricter standards in 2019. In a lengthy written statement, Rachel Sherrard, a spokeswoman for the group, emphasized that American utilities are now expected to deal with an event twice as strong as the 1989 Quebec storm. (Comparison with an old storm like Carrington, she noted, “is challenging because high-fidelity historical measurement data is not available.”) Though the new standards require utilities to fix vulnerabilities in their systems, the companies themselves determine the right approach—and the timeline.
If the utilities remain unmotivated, humanity’s ability to withstand a major geomagnetic storm will depend largely on our ability to replace damaged transformers. A 2020 investigation by the US Department of Commerce found that the nation imported more than 80 percent of its large transformers and their components. Under normal supply and demand conditions, lead times for these structures can reach two years. “People outside the industry don’t understand how difficult these things are to manufacture,” Kappenman says. Insiders know not to buy a transformer unless the factory that made it is at least 10 years old. “It takes that long to work out the kinks,” he says. In a time of solar crisis, foreign governments—even geopolitical allies—may throttle exports of vital electrical equipment, Kappenman notes. Some spare-part programs have cropped up over the past decade that allow participants to pool resources in various disaster scenarios. The size and location of these spares, however, are unknown to federal authorities—because the industry won’t tell them.
One day regulators may manage to map the electrical grid, even stormproof it (provided a big one doesn’t wipe it out first). Engineers may launch a satellite array that gives us days to batten down the hatches. Governments may figure out a way to stand up emergency transformers in a pinch. And there the sun will be—the inconceivable, inextinguishable furnace at the center of our solar system that destroys as indiscriminately as it creates. Life on this little mote depends entirely on the mercy of a cosmic nuclear power with an itchy trigger finger. No human triumph will ever change that. (But we should still buy the capacitors. Soon, please.)
In the year 774 AD, an enormously powerful blast of matter and energy from space slammed into Earth.
Nothing like it had been felt on this planet for 10,000 years. A mix of high-energy light and hugely accelerated subatomic particles, when this wave impacted Earth it changed our atmospheric chemistry enough to be measured centuries later.
Our pre-electronic societies went entirely unaffected by it. But were this sort of event to happen today, the results would be bad.
It was first discovered by an analysis of tree rings, of all things. Scientists found that the level of carbon-14, an isotope of carbon, was much higher in rings from that year than usual. Some years later, looking at air samples from ice cores, scientists saw that there were elevated levels of beryllium-10 and chlorine-36 as well.
The common factor in all these elements is that they are created when extremely high-energy subatomic particles hit Earth’s air and ground. They slam into the nuclei of atoms and change them, creating these isotopes. The only way to get particles at energies like this is from space, where powerful magnetic fields in exploding stars, for example, can accelerate the particles to such high speeds. We call these isotopes cosmogenic, made from space.
What could have created the space storm in 774 AD? The obvious candidate for such a thing is a very powerful solar flare, an explosion on the Sun created when intense magnetic field lines tangle up and short circuit, releasing huge blasts of energy and particles. But the 774 event was so powerful that at first scientists were skeptical it could be from a flare. Once any other type of astronomical phenomenon was ruled out, though, a flare was all that was left.
A team of scientists has gone through the records to look at other such events in the hopes of categorizing this flare compared to other known flares. What they found is that this event was by far more powerful than even some relatively scary modern flares.
For example, in 1989 the Sun erupted in a powerful series of flares as well as a huge coronal mass ejection (or CME), where billions of tons of hydrogen plasma is ejected at high speed. Carrying its own magnetic field, this bout of space weather slammed into the Earth’s magnetic field, affecting it so profoundly that electric currents were induced under the Earth’s surface. Called geomagnetically induced currents, this extra electric energy blew out transformers in Quebec and caused a power outage that lasted for hours.
Damage done to a transformer in Quebec during the 1989 solar storm. Credit: NASA
In February 1956 was the most powerful solar storm in the modern era, which was easily twice as strong as the 1989 event. Our power grid wasn’t as heavily used at that time, so it didn’t cause the same sort of damage as the 1989 event, but was still a huge event.
Using various methods to characterize the 1956 storm, including measurements in visible light, radio waves, changes to the Earth’s ionosphere (a high-altitude layer of ionized air that, when it changes rapidly, can affect magnetometers on the ground that measure magnetic field strength), and more, they found the 774 AD event was a staggering 30 to 70 times stronger. This means it was likely 100 times stronger than the one in 1989.
It’s not clear how long the flare lasted; most strong ones grow and decay in a matter of hours. But the total energy released in this flare was about the same as what the entire Sun radiates in one second: 2 x 1026 Joules, or the equivalent of roughly 100 billion one-megaton bombs going off.
That’s a lot of energy. Enough to power our entire planet (given our current energy use) for 300,000 years.
A huge solar flare erupted on the Sun in October 2003, seen here in X-rays. It was also accompanied by a powerful coronal mass ejection. Solar storms like these are a danger to our power grid and orbiting satellites. Credit: NASA/SOHO
A flare like this is called a superflare, and until now it wasn’t thought the Sun could produce them (other stars that are more active magnetically make them quite often). The scientists think the 774 flare may have been a special circumstance, where a powerful flare occurred near a streamer of gas called a filament, slamming it and accelerating the protons in it to such high energies.
That’s actually something of a relief! I’d prefer that it’s hard for the Sun to do this.
An enormous solar filament, hundreds of thousands of kilometers across, erupted from the Sun in August 2012. Credit: NASA/GSFC/SDO
Such an event happening today would be catastrophic. It could take out numerous satellites — the particles and high-energy radiation can short out even hardened electronics — and cause widespread blackouts. Those could take a long time to fix, since the bigger transformers used by power grids cannot be mass-produced. Some scientists calculated that passengers on international airplane flights could receive a lifetime dose of radiation in a few hours from such an event.
The effects on Earth can be difficult to determine; in part it depends on the whether the flare and CME’s magnetic polarity (the north-south part of the magnetic field) is able to couple with the Earth’s magnetic polarity. If it does we get the blackouts and other damage. But some of the effects occur either way.
I’ll note that we haven’t seen as powerful an event since 774, though many have been quite strong. The Sun erupted in 2012 in a coronal mass ejection that, had it hit the Earth, would’ve been worse than the 1989 event. Happily it was sent off in another direction.
But it’s clear the Sun can have some pretty big tantrums, and we need to take this seriously. Certainly solar astronomers do, and as the Sun ramps up into the newest magnetic cycle they’re looking at our star with everything they have. We don’t know how strong this cycle will be; one prediction is that it will be no big deal, but another says it very much will be.
We’ll see. There’s clearly a lot more we have to learn about the Sun. It’s not an exaggeration to say that our modern lives depend on it.
On August 4, 1972, the sun unleashed an incandescent whip of energy from its surface and flung it toward the planets. It was accompanied by a seething cloud of plasma called a coronal mass ejection, which traversed the nearly 150 million kilometers between sun and Earth in just more than half a day—still the fastest-known arrival time for such outbursts—to briefly bathe our planet in cosmic fire.
Earth’s shielding magnetosphere crumpled and shrunk by two thirds, sending powerful geomagnetic currents rippling through the planet. Dazzling displays of “northern lights” stretched down to Spain, and overloaded power lines strained as far south as Texas. Off the southern coast of Haiphong, North Vietnam, the seas churned as the celestial disturbance prematurely detonated some two dozen U.S. Navy sea mines. The geomagnetic storm is one of the most violent solar events in recorded history, certainly the most violent of the space age.
The astronauts of Apollo 16 had been home about three months from their lunar foray, and those of Apollo 17 were still preparing for their December launch. The fact that the solar outburst happened between the penultimate and final crewed moon missions was simply a matter of chance. If the members of either crew had been in space during the solar storm, especially if they had been traversing the portion of the “cislunar” region between Earth and the moon that lies outside the magnetosphere, they would have been exposed to a potentially deadly dose of radiation.
We got lucky in 1972. And in terms of space-based hazards, that luck has largely held throughout humanity’s off-world excursions. To date, the only humans to actually die in space were the three cosmonauts of Soyuz 11, who asphyxiated because of faulty hardware as their spacecraft began its descent to Earth. Yet despite what most estimates would seem to consider a near-sterling safety record, today the prospect of venturing back beyond low-Earth orbit somehow seems more daunting—more dangerous—than it did when the Apollo program ended. Equipped with more knowledge than ever about the environs beyond our home, we now seem more reluctant to leave it. Maybe we know too much.
FAILURE IS AN OPTION
Politics, money and uneven federal directives can all explain why no president since Richard Nixon has sent humans back to the moon. Some lunar exploration advocates also sense more philosophical reasons, however. We understand, better than at any point in the space age, what can happen to us out there. Is making the journey worth it? We watch our own planet burn, and we witness almost unimaginable beauty recorded by the sensors of our solar-system-touring robots, and we wonder whether human lives should be on the line in the name of exploring beyond Earth. Space can kill us. Anyone who dares to venture past our world’s upper atmosphere will die painfully without a life-support system. Even with adequate life support, the sun could still kill spacefarers if it lets loose at just the wrong instant while they are beyond the magnetosphere’s protective bubble. Deep space could kill us, too— even from afar: particles and radiation emanating from exploding stars and active galaxies become, when they arrive in our vicinity, harmful cosmic rays that can rend DNA at the seams to spark cancer and other maladies.
The severity of this latter threat is only now becoming clear. On September 25 an international team of scientists working with China’s Chang’e 4 lander and Yutu 2 rover announced the moon is constantly bombarded by showers of dangerous cosmic rays. “A New Problem for Astronauts,” read part of a headline at the Web site ExtremeTech. “Radiation Levels on the Moon Are Alarmingly High,”said a site called Interesting Engineering. “New Measurements Show Moon Has Hazardous Radiation Levels,” the Associated Press wrote.
Clive Neal, a lunar scientist and space-exploration advocate at the University of Notre Dame, has hoped to see more people on the moon since the Apollo 17 astronauts departed 48 years ago. Making that happen, he suspects, might require acknowledging that failure is not only an option—it is inevitable. “As we’ve seen in testing rockets, failure is where you learn a lot,” he says. “Despite everything you do, you’re not going to get rid of all the risks. That is a fact.”
Earlier this year, Americans strapped to an American rocket launched from American soil for the first time in nearly a decade. Could a return to the moon be far off? Under the Drumpf administration’s Artemis plan, NASA is angling to send the first woman and the next man to the moon’s resource-rich south pole by 2024. It is a long shot: The space agency and the contractors it relies on for much of its flight hardware must hasten to finish the arduous task of building massive new rockets and landers. Most experts believe Congress has to dramatically increase funding for this to be possible, to say nothing of the uncertainty that would stem from a November 3 victory by Democrats Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the U.S. presidential election. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine says he is optimistic, however. And a growing community of lunar scientists and private companies are operating as though Artemis will happen, even as the true scopes of the myriad challenges the project faces becomes clear.
“Everyone has wanted to make progress in their individual area for a long time. Now that there seems to be a real solid direction and a goal, everybody is motivated and working together,” says Dana Hurley, a space physicist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL).
People are working together to allow humans to live and work “off-planet,” as Neal likes to put it. Protecting them from radiation has to be a primary goal. But just how that would work, and what level of protection is actually necessary, will be a question for space agencies—and the astronauts themselves.
“Anybody who is on the NASA side of the aisle is going to say, ‘First and foremost, we have to preserve the safety of the people engaged, the astronauts, and everything else is secondary.’ And it should be,” says Roger Launius, a longtime NASA historian. “Nobody disagrees with that. The question is ‘What is necessary to ensure that safety?’ That’s always a hard thing.”
THE RADIOACTIVE MOON
Astronauts on the surface of the moon would face between 200 and 1,000 times more radiation than we experience on Earth, says Robert F. Wimmer-Schweingruber of Kiel University in Germany, who co-led the new Chang’e 4 study. That is about two and a half times the radiation level on the International Space Station (ISS). Earth’s thick atmosphere and powerful magnetic field protect us. The moon is airless, however, and its magnetic field is extremely weak, so it has no shielding. The cosmic rays are mostly in the form of neutrons, which are large and heavy (as far as subatomic particles go). And they can produce secondary particles that do their own damage, much like a cue ball scattering racked billiard balls.
Ironically, the sun protects from this a bit, says George Ho, a heliophysicist at APL. When our star is undergoing the active phase of its 11-year cycle, it unleashes more radiation, like it did in that nasty 1972 storm. These harmful emanations can, to some degree, safeguard Earth and the other planets by deflecting a portion of the incoming cosmic rays. The recent measurements performed by the Chang’e 4 mission occurred during an extraordinarily quiescent solar phase, Ho adds.
“We’ve done so much better since the Apollo days. We look at the sun continuously now,” Ho says. “We can forecast and say, ‘Hey, the next seven days will be bad for people doing EVAs [extravehicular activities].’ And for solar particle events, a few millimeters of aluminum can shield from those.”
Because they can penetrate such thin shielding, galactic cosmic rays are more dangerous than run-of-the-mill solar particles. Radiation-blocking material such as lead offers little help because it still produces secondary particles that are also dangerous.
Many scientists expect that visitors to the moon, especially the first few crews, will stay for only a few days or, at most, a couple of weeks. The cumulative radiation dose for such short stays would be manageable. Longer-term outposts, such as moon bases and lunar-orbiting space stations envisaged by multiple space programs, will need a plan, however. Lunar scientists have plenty of ideas, yet advocates such as Neal say they will only come to fruition if countries work together, not in competition.
SUBSURFACE SHELTERS AND ‘SPRING SKIER’ SPACE SUITS
The most obvious solution to high levels of radiation at the lunar surface is to avoid dwelling there. Wimmer-Schweingruber says underground habitats could protect moon dwellers from many harmful particles. Lunar visitors should plan to build habitats at least 80 centimeters (about two and a half feet) beneath the surface, he says. To do so, they will want to bring bulldozers—or at least beefy rovers with front-end loading attachments.
Ryan Watkins, a physicist at the Planetary Science Institute, imagines people living inside lava tubes, which are hollow deposits left behind by ancient magma flows. “It’s kind of a double whammy, because it’s not only going to protect you from radiation but also protect you from micrometeoroid impacts,” she says.
Sungwoo Lim, a physicist at the Open University, based in England, has published research describing how to use microwaves to sinter lunar regolith. This work raises the distinct possibility that future moon residents could produce building material the ancient Sumerian way: by baking dirt into bricks.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, aeronautics researcher Dava Newman and her graduate student Cody Paige are working on future space suits built from new advanced materials. Polyethylene—basic plastic—turns out to be a great radiation shield because it is so full of hydrogen, which absorbs the heavy neutrons in cosmic rays, Paige says. Future space suits could further boost their protective capacity by also incorporating aerogels, carbon nanotubes, boron nanotubes and boron shielding, she adds. Boron-10 is especially helpful: because of how neutrons are arrayed inside its atomic nuclei, the substance’s cosmic-ray-stopping power is some four orders of magnitude greater than that of hydrogen.
Future space suits have to be lightweight, easy to move in, and better at protecting astronauts from hazards such as micrometeorites and radiation, Newman says. The current basic space suit weighs about 300 pounds (136 kilograms), and she wants to bring that down to 90 pounds (41 kilograms).
“You’re wasting the majority of your energy if you’re in a gas-pressurized, bulky shell,” Newman says. The next space suit might look and fit more like a wet suit. Astronauts could don multiple layers like a spring skier and don a radiation-shielding overcoat when the conditions call for it. Space suits could also add shielding where it is most necessary, covering essential organs but leaving the extremities more exposed.
Astronauts will face three main sources of danger on the moon: radiation, reduced gravity and regolith. Radiation is the most recent concern, yet reduced gravity is a well-known health hazard, too. Even when offset by rigorous exercise, astronauts still lose muscle mass and bone density during extended stays in the microgravity environs of the ISS. The moon’s gravity is heftier—about one sixth of Earth’s—but long-duration visitors will still experience some of low gravity’s deleterious effects.
Se-Jin Lee, a geneticist at the University of Connecticut, is trying to address some of those problems. After more than 10 years of efforts, he was able to send a team of mice to the ISS last December. Some of the animals were modified to lack a gene that suppresses muscle growth, some were treated with an experimental drug that works in a similar fashion, and others served as unmodified controls. The modified and treated mice not only maintained their muscle mass in space but even bulked up and had better bone density, compared with the untreated ones, Lee found.
Although a drug based on this research remains far off for humans, the work suggests that astronauts might someday be able to take a pill to prevent the worst health effects of reduced gravity.
The gene that suppresses muscle growth produces a protein called myostatin, which usually works to balance muscle mass with fat. A molecule that keeps the two in equilibrium would benefit animals trying to maintain enough muscle to hunt or run away while also preventing them from accumulating it in excess, which is more costly to maintain.
“For humans, I think this is an evolutionary vestige,” Lee says of the molecule. “We don’t really need to deal with this anymore. We all have refrigerators; we live in homes with electricity; we don’t have to escape from predators. That’s why I argue that this particular system is so attractive for drugs.”
Even if astronauts can avoid radiation exposure and muscle degeneration, the moon’s surficial soil—called regolith—itself poses another tricky problem. Composed of jagged, microscopic shards of rock, moon dust is like a more abrasive and irritating talcum powder: it gets into everything, from astronaut lungs to tiny machine parts and structural crevices. It also flies around when a spacecraft lands or launches, turning landing zones into a buckshot-blasted scouring pad, Watkins notes.
“The bigger concern becomes when you start to land multiple spacecraft in the same area. You really have to worry about how far away you land because of that dust,” she says. “Imagine it flying at one kilometer per second. It’s going to do some damage, so figuring out ways to mitigate that is a big area of concern right now.”
WHAT DOES NOT KILL YOU MAKES YOU STRONGER
Like many enthusiastic lunar scientists, M.I.T.’s Newman notes that the next wave of space exploration is a form of soft diplomacy. “This is about the potential of the world working together,” she says.
Launius, like many others, views the moon as akin to Antarctica, which contains multiple international scientific stations. It is difficult and dangerous to access, but people do it all the time, cycling in and out in small crews. “We can do camping trips to the moon,” he says. “We can go up and spend a few days; take everything you need with you. There’s not any reason to think we don’t have the capability to put a lunar base up and stay there for some period of time. But here’s the problem: Fundamentally, going into space with humans is about becoming a multiplanetary species. If that’s not the reason, then why are we doing it? Once you do that, we’re talking not just about a lunar research station.”
It is hard to talk in practical terms about such grand ideas, Launius says. And right now, when multiple countries are planning moon bases and space stations, practicality is rearing its head. Space travel is more possible than ever, and we know more about it than ever, so the danger is more clear and present than it was in the past. What is more, Launius believes the U.S. is more averse to risk now than it was during the Apollo age.
“We all do this risk calculation,” he says. “If I’m standing on the corner waiting to cross, and I see a car 100 yards [91 meters] away, I may decide I can make that. But the person next to me may not. That’s an understandable problem, and it’s different from person to person. NASA is cautious because they’ve had some really close calls, and they’ve had some accidents in which they’ve lost astronauts. But I think we may be a little more risk-averse now, as a society.”
The space agency is also a huge ship, powered by taxpayers and steered by politics. Exploration advocates have seen moon-return programs announced, hyped, planned and then canceled several times since the 1970s. Decades of uncertainty are one reason some scientists are so eager to work with the private sector—and vice versa. Watkins serves on a science advisory panel for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s space exploration company Blue Origin, and she says the company is keen to work with scientists to decide where to land and which kinds of experimental equipment to bring. Private corporations, beholden to stockholders or a few owners, might have a different tolerance for risk than a government agency that answers to the many.
While some exploration advocates argue that NASA needs to dream bigger or cut red tape out of the way, many scientists say simply realizing that space can kill us is not the problem. What does not kill us could make us stronger.
“It’s not that people aren’t dreaming big. Sending a crew to the lunar south pole is big,” Watkins says of NASA’s planned Artemis mission to land humans on the moon. “We just have more knowledge, which isn’t a bad thing at all. We know more, and that means we can also prepare better.”
“Astronomers have observed that our Sun could be a potential threat to human civilization due to a phenomenon where the Sun ejects large bursts of energy called a “superflare.”
Superflares are the extreme versions of a typical solar flare — a sudden flash of increased brightness of the Sun and usually observed near its surface and close to a sunspot group. Powerful flares are often, but not always, accompanied by a coronal mass ejection. Even the most potent flares are barely detectable in the total solar irradiance.
However, unlike the typical solar flare, superflares are much stronger and powerful. Astronomers warn that a superflare could burst energy from its surface that could be seen light years away that could harmfully affect life on Earth.
Initially, scientists believed that superflares were only limited to be an occurrence in younger stars. However, Yuta Notsu and his team of researchers published their latest study rejecting that initial assumption and discussed otherwise in The Astrophysical Journal.
The study indicated that superflares were a natural and frequent occurring phenomenon on younger stars due to its small size and high energy. These younger stars would often burst large amounts of energy. Moreover, it was then believed that as these stars aged and became suns, superflares would incrementally decrease and eventually stop.
“When our Sun was young, it was very active because it rotated very fast and probably generated more powerful flares,” said Notsu in Boulder. “But we didn’t know if such large flares occur on the modern sun with very low frequency.”
However, a discovery from the results provided by the Kepler Space Telescope, a NASA spacecraft from 2009, found something odd about the stars it was observing. In rare events, the light from distant stars seemed to get suddenly, and momentarily, brighter.
Notsu explained that normal-sized flares are frequent on the sun. But what the Kepler data was showing seemed to be much bigger, on the order of hundreds to thousands of times more powerful than the most giant flare ever recorded with modern instruments on Earth.
The results should be a wake-up call for life on our planet, said Notsu during a visit at the University of Colorado Boulder.
If a superflare erupted from the sun, he said, Earth would likely sit in the path of a wave of high-energy radiation. Such a blast could disrupt electronics across the globe, causing widespread blackouts, and shorting out communication satellites in orbit.
This could be a massive threat for life on Earth, given that most of society is contingent along with the dependency on technological devices. Moreover, Notsu does not only refer to smartphones and Wi-Fi connectivity. Instead, a single wave of such superflares could cause catastrophic events on Earth.
“If a superflare occurred 1,000 years ago, it was probably no big problem. People may have seen a large aurora,” Notsu said. “Now, it’s a much bigger problem because of our electronics.”
Primarily, orbiting satellites would first be affected and render them useless—making all communication devices on Earth, including cellular phones, tracking services, GPS, radios, etc., to stop functioning. Moreover, all electronic-dependent technology would also stop working. This could mean aircraft are crashing all over the place, hospitals without operating equipment, or even plumbing and electric services become useless.
To make matters worse, researchers are also in the dark with regards to information about superflares. Currently, researchers don’t have an exact explanation of why superflares occur. Moreover, they cannot predict when a superflare could exactly arise, making it impossible to prevent and prepare for such situations.
To understand more, Notsu’s team ran new spectroscopic observations with the Kepler data, data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia spacecraft and the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico.
Over a series of studies, the group used those instruments to narrow down a list of superflares that had come from 43 stars that resembled our sun. The researchers then subjected those rare events to a rigorous statistical analysis.
The team writes: “We need more studies to clarify the properties of superflare stars on Sun-like stars and to answer the important question, ‘Can our Sun have superflares?’” Also, “the number of old, slowly rotating Sun-like superflare stars [observed is] now very small, and the current statistical discussions are not enough.”
Fortunately, the team also told that superflares for older stars or Suns may not occur as frequent compared to younger stars. “Our study shows that superflares are rare events,” said Notsu. “But there is some possibility that we could experience such an event in the next 100 years or so.””
“Although our medieval ancestors would not have noticed solar activity and solar storms much, apart from occasional displays of aurorae, those storms left some environmental signatures.
Solar activity changes the intensity of high-energy particles hitting the upper atmosphere. When these particles hit atoms of oxygen or nitrogen, they create new elements, some of them radioactive.
These new elements get carried down in rain and snow to the Earth’s surface. In most places they just diffuse off into the soil. However when these atoms fall on permanent ice caps, they end up being trapped in a layer of surface ice.
Then, the following year another layer forms on top, and so on, so that the icecap contains a historical record of solar activity. Scientists have extracted ice cores yielding solar activity records dating back to remote historical times.
When we look at these ice cores, we can see the annual layering quite easily, so we can scan along the core looking for particular elements, counting the layers as we go. Doing this we can track solar activity back in time thousands of years.
It has been found that although our hi-tech free ancestors never noticed, there have been solar storms far larger than anything of which we had prior knowledge.
One hit the Earth in 660 BCE (BC). Others occurred in 775 and 994 CE (AD).”
The long-ago giant impact that led to the formation of Earth’s moon also helped make life as we know it possible on our planet, a new study suggests.
More than 4.4 billion years ago, scientists believe, a Mars-size planet dubbed Theia slammed into the proto-Earth, blasting huge amounts of material from the pair into space. Some of this violently liberated stuff eventually coalesced to form the moon, while other bits and pieces were gobbled up by our bashed and bleeding world.
Some of this newly incorporated material turned out to be pretty important. According to the study, the catastrophic collision provided Earth with most of its carbon, nitrogen and sulfur, key chemical building blocks of life as we know it. [How the Moon Evolved: A Photo Timeline]
“This study suggests that a rocky, Earth-like planet gets more chances to acquire life-essential elements if it forms and grows from giant impacts with planets that have sampled different building blocks, perhaps from different parts of a protoplanetary disk,” co-author Rajdeep Dasgupta, a professor in the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences at Rice University in Houston, said in a statement.
Carbon, nitrogen and sulfur are “volatile” elements, meaning they have a relatively low boiling point and can be tough for nascent planets and moons to hang onto. A number of other life-important chemicals, including water, are volatiles as well.
“From the study of primitive meteorites, scientists have long known that Earth and other rocky planets in the inner solar system are volatile-depleted,” Dasgupta said. “But the timing and mechanism of volatile delivery has been hotly debated. Ours is the first scenario that can explain the timing and delivery in a way that is consistent with all of the geochemical evidence.”
A schematic view of Earth’s accretion that led to the origin of some of Earth’s life-essential volatile elements, including carbon, nitrogen and sulfur.
The researchers, led by Rice graduate student Damanveer Grewal, performed laboratory experiments at high temperatures and pressures, mimicking the conditions present during planetary-core formation. They looked at how much carbon and nitrogen got incorporated into the simulated core at sulfur concentrations of 0, 10 and 25 percent, respectively. (Theia may have had a sulfur-rich core. And some scientists have posited that sulfur blocks core uptake of carbon and nitrogen, pushing these elements out into the mantle and crust, which together are known as the “bulk silicate Earth.”)
The team also ran computer simulations, exploring more than 1 billion different scenarios to better understand how Earth got its volatiles.
“What we found is that all the evidence — isotopic signatures, the carbon-nitrogen ratio and the overall amounts of carbon, nitrogen and sulfur in the bulk silicate Earth — are consistent with a moon-forming impact involving a volatile-bearing, Mars-sized planet with a sulfur-rich core,” Grewal said in the same statement.
The results, which were published online Wednesday (Jan. 23) in the journal Science Advances, could have applications beyond our own planet, helping scientists gain a better general understanding of the conditions necessary for life to arise throughout the cosmos.
“This removes some boundary conditions,” Dasgupta said. “It shows that life-essential volatiles can arrive at the surface layers of a planet, even if they were produced on planetary bodies that underwent core formation under very different conditions.”
Mike Wall’s book about the search for alien life, “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate) is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us @Spacedotcom or Facebook. Originally published on Space.com.
Solar flares come and go and the Earth is showered by our Sun with a constant stream of powerful and potentially dangerous particles.
One major solar flare event occurred back on Sept. 2, 1859, and was one of the most powerful solar events ever witnessed by humans.
Richard Carrington, a British astronomer, was witness to a visual white light flare, which hurled a huge solar Coronal Mass Ejection, or CME, towards the Earth.
This powerful CME reached the Earth in a near record time of some 17.6 hours — much faster than many of the other solar storm particles.
The Earth was to be hit with one of the most powerful displays of solar radiation in all of recorded history. This CME was so powerful that the aurora was seen in latitudes as far south as Mexico and the equator.
Equally amazing is the fact that miners in Colorado witnessed the brightest of aurora, thinking that the sun was about to rise, as they started to prepare breakfast for the camps.
In this pre-digital world, the best form of long distance communication was the telegraph.
Many railroad telegraph operators saw power lines and telegraph lines spark with the induction of this solar particle storm, cutting off communications.
If this had been today, we would have witnessed the near total destruction of any power grid or cell phone communications not shielded or placed in Faraday cages or bags.
Solar flares are measured at the top levels with the designation of X!
Solar physicists tell us that the 1859 Carrington Event, was classified as an X 45 on the flare scale.
They also tell us that this type of flare may occur with a frequency of nearly 100 years!
They also tell us that the most powerful flare that our sun could produce, due to its size and classification, would be an X 200 flare. These monster flares are thought to occur once every 15,000 years.
Another of these super flares would be an X 100 flare, which has the possibility of occurring once in every 500 years on average.
We are now at the end period of Solar Cycle 24 and soon to be entering the next cycle, in 2019, Solar Cycle 25.
Solar Cycle 25 will peak again in the year 2025!
During the past few cycles, the Nov. 4, 2003 “Halloween storm” produced a flare which did not hit the Earth directly, but just passed us by. That storm was rated as an X 35 on this power scale.
The simple point is this: We here on Earth depend so much on the new digital technology of the day and we are most susceptible to the massive damage which will come from another Carrington Event!
The power grid and other critical infrastructure need to be protected as best as possible, along with a greater study of our nearest star, the Sun!
The Sun has been shining for some 4 billion years and should do the same for another 4 billion years!
On Sept. 10, 1770, the skies above China, Korea and Japan turned an eerie red, and for eight more nights these glowing red auroras lingered.
For nearly three centuries, this mysterious event was lost to history.
Now, researchers poring through palace diaries and other historical documents from East Asia have rediscovered the bizarre phenomenon, and have proposed a likely cause: A giant magnetic storm that rivaled the most powerful one on record, the so-called Carrington Event of 1859. (Geomagnetic storms occur when solar eruptions hit Earth’s magnetosphere, the shell of electrically charged particles trapped by Earth’s magnetic field.)
If a similarly massive magnetic storm hit Earth now, it could wreak havoc on power grids around the planet, researchers said. [The Sun’s Wrath: The Worst Solar Storms in History]
Mysterious event rediscovered
To rediscover this cryptic event, Hisashi Hayakawa, a historian and astronomer at Osaka University in Japan, and his colleagues investigated historical records from China, Korea and Japan from the 18th century, looking for mentions of auroras. (Auroras, the radiant displays of colors in the sky known as the northern or southern lights, result from solar particles striking Earth’s magnetosphere. They are usually most visible near the planet’s magnetic poles, but when they occur at lower latitudes, far from Earth’s poles, they can reveal evidence of geomagnetic storm activity.)
These types of “historical documents can let us trace back solar activity for millennia,” Hayakawa told Live Science. For instance, records of auroras can be found in Babylonian astronomical diaries from 567 B.C., he said.
The team also examined sunspot drawings from the same period by amateur German astronomer Johann Caspar Staudacher, as well as records from Capt. James Cook’s missions on the HMS Endeavour.
After studying 111 historical documents, the scientists found evidence of red auroras seen throughout East Asia from Sept. 10 to 19, 1770. These long-lasting auroras were noticed at low latitudes, suggesting a powerful geomagnetic storm caused them.
The researchers also found these auroras were documented farther south by crew members aboard the HMS Endeavour near Timor Island in Southeast Asia. These findings are among the earliest known records of simultaneous auroral observations in both hemispheres.
“Considering this event was so large, it would be reasonable to find more events not only in East Asia but also in other low-latitude areas,” Hayakawa said. As a result, the team is extending its archival surveys to areas as distant as the Middle East, Hayakawa added.
The team also scoured historical records for drawings of sunspots, which often co-occur with geomagnetic storms. These drawings suggested that sunspots during the 1770 event were twice as large in area as those seen during the Carrington Event, suggesting they were at least comparable in strength. During the notorious Carrington Event, electrical currents in the atmosphere zapped telegraph wires and caused paper from the devices to catch fire.
The research suggested the 1770 event affected at least as much of the globe as the Carrington Event. Moreover, the 1770 event’s auroras were seen across nine nights, while the Carrington Event’s were seen on just four nights.
“The events in 1770 lasted much longer,” Hayakawa said.
As a result, scientists may need to rethink how frequently such powerful storms occur, the researchers said.
“Now we know the Carrington event was not a special one,” study co-author Hiroaki Isobe, a solar physician at Kyoto University in Japan, told Live Science. “Such event occurs from time to time, roughly about once in 100 years.”
Potentially catastrophic event
Given how dependent on electricity the world has become since the Carrington Event, if a similarly powerful geomagnetic storm were to hit now, unprecedented damage would result.
For instance, in 1989, a geomagnetic storm blacked out Quebec in 90 seconds, leaving 6 million customers in the dark for 9 hours, damaging transformers as far away as New Jersey, and nearly taking down U.S. power grids from the Eastern Seaboard to the Pacific Northwest. However, the Quebec event may have packed just one-tenth the power of the Carrington Event, prior work suggested.
A 2013 study from Lloyd’s of London estimated a $2.6 trillion cost for North America if a Carrington-level storm happened now, and predicted “a Carrington-level, extreme geomagnetic storm is almost inevitable in the future.”
“We believe we need to expect even more economic and social impacts for this kind of extreme and long-lasting magnetic storm,” Hayakawa said.
The researchers are now looking for other historical examples of powerful magnetic storms. “We have already found another 1770-class event,” Hayakawa said.
IN MID-SEPTEMBER 1770, THE SKY over the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto turned crimson. Hundreds of thousands of people would have been looking up at an enormous aurora that stained huge swaths of the night sky. New research, published in the journal Space Weather, combines ancient accounts of the phenomenon with astrometric calculations to suggest that this heavenly light show may have been caused by the largest magnetic storm ever observed.
A similar storm in 1859 caused significant disruption to communication networks across Europe and America. This Japanese storm, however, may have been as much as 7 percent larger. It’s unusual to see auroras outside of the polar regions, except in the case of particularly severe magnetic storms caused by solar flares. Written records of these out-of-place auroras are usually the best guide scientists have to where and when big space storms occurred in the past.
To study this one, researchers from the National Institute of Polar Research worked with the National Institute of Japanese Literature. They drew information from a detailed painting in the manuscript Seikai, or Understanding Comets, and a recently discovered diary from the prominent Higashi-Hakura family. The diary describes how, late that night, “red clouds covered half of the sky to the north, toward the Milky Way,” and “a number of white vapors rose straight through the red vapor.” Based on the painting and description, and the location of the Milky Way in the sky at the time, scientists were able to determine the geometry of the aurora and, in turn, estimate the strength of the storm that caused it. “The enthusiasm and dedication of amateur astronomers in the past provides us an exciting opportunity,” researcher Kiyomi Iwahashi said in a statement.
Massive magnetic storms present serious risks to communications and power grids, and it’s hoped this kind of work will help us understand them a little better. But it’s hard to tell just how at risk we are. “We are currently within a period of decreasing solar activity, said researcher Ryuho Kataoka, “which may spell the end for severe magnetic storms in the near future.” Only last month, however, an “extremely fast coronal mass ejection,” which could have been powerful enough to cause problems, just missed the Earth. Phew.
MASSIVE EXPLOSION ON THE FARSIDE OF THE SUN: On Sunday, July 23rd 2017, a spectacular CME emerged from the farside of the sun. Coronagraphs onboard the orbiting Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) tracked the fast-moving cloud as it billowed into space:
NASA’s STEREO-A spacecraft, which has a partial view of the sun’s farside, identified the source of the blast as active sunspot AR2665, familiar to readers of Spaceweather.com who watched the behemoth cross the Earthside of the sun earlier this month. STEREO-A observed an intense flash of extreme UV radiation from the sunspot’s magnetic canopy:
The intensity of the flash suggests (but does not prove) that the underlying flare might have been the most intense kind: X-class.
If this explosion had occurred 2 weeks ago when the huge sunspot was facing Earth, we would be predicting strong geomagnetic storms in the days ahead. Instead, the CME is racing away from our planet … and directly toward Mars. Compared to Earth, the Red Planet is currently on the opposite side of the sun, and apparently in the crosshairs of this CME. Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity might be observing the effects of a solar storm later this week.
Coincidentally, yesterday’s farside explosion occurred on the 5th anniversary of another significant farside event: The Solar Superstorm of July 23, 2012. That superstorm, which has been compared to the historic Carrington Event of 1859, could have caused widespread power blackouts if it had not missed our planet.
Sunspot AR2665 will be back on the Earthside of the sun a little more than a week from now. If the sunspot remains active, it could bring a new round of geomagnetic storms and auroras to our planet in early August. Stay tuned.
FEMA Is Preparing for a Solar Superstorm That Would Take Down the Grid
Jun 20 2017, 6:00am
The looming threat of extreme space weather has FEMA preparing for the perfect solar storm, and an unimaginable power grid disaster, FOIA documents reveal.
In 1859, a giant plume of magnetized plasma was flung out into space from the Sun. This coronal mass ejection (CME), the result of a massive solar flare, traveled the 93 million miles between the Sun and Earth in only 17.6 hours. Today, it’s known as the Carrington Event, and is remembered as the largest geomagnetic storm in the history of recorded space weather.
No other storm has matched it in speed or magnitude. But that doesn’t mean we’re not preparing for the inevitability. Despite our superior ability to predict these events, the stakes are exponentially higher in a modern, hyper-connected world.
According to unpublished FEMA documents obtained by Government Attic, a FOIA database and non-profit organization, the Department of Homeland Security agency once mapped out a disaster plan for the occurrence of another geomagnetic “superstorm,” noting that the rare—yet “high-consequence”—scenario has “the potential for catastrophic impact on our nation and FEMA’s ability to respond.”
When the shock wave of accelerated particles arrived on September 1, 1859, the disturbances to Earth’s magnetosphere were so great that telegraph communications across Europe and North America went on the fritz. Sparks leapt from telegraph infrastructure, and machinery was so inundated with electric currents that operators were able to transmit messages while disconnected from battery power. Compasses wiggled, and brilliant auroras were reportedly seen as far as the Caribbean.
FEMA predicts that a geomagnetic storm of this intensity would be “a catastrophe in slow motion,” though not unmitigatable. Space weather events happen all the time, and many are harmless; an event causing radio blackouts, solar radiation storms, and geomagnetic storms would be anomalous. Still, its cascading effects on power and communications would challenge FEMA’s ability to respond to a nationwide crisis, thus making this exercise an important one.
“These things tend to come in clusters, so just when you’re on your knees, another one hits. They’re really the only naturally occurring catastrophe that can come in these successions,” James McAteer, an astrophysics professor at New Mexico State University, told me.
First to feel the impact would be high-frequency (HF) networks, such as some aviation and long-distance military communications. As X-ray and ultraviolet radiation strike the ionosphere, a protective layer of our planet’s atmosphere, changing its conductivity, the radiation would absorb radio signals trying to bounce off of it. The result would be a blackout of HF communications, as well as some lower frequency ones, on the entire daylight side of Earth.
Within 20 minutes of the CME’s occurrence, FEMA estimates that 15 percent of the satellite fleet would be lost due to solar panel damage. Solar radiation from the incoming storm would add “3-5 years worth of exposure” to the panels, degrading older satellites to the point of inoperability. Low orbiting satellites, such as Iridium and Globalstar, may be less affected. Cellular service would be disrupted, and a loss of GPS capabilities could complicate FEMA operations.
The widespread damage to North America’s power grid would be unimaginable. (The interconnectedness of the grid “is almost like a biological system,” McAteer said.) Transformers, which are extremely expensive to build, make power transmission possible. But when a CME sweeps across Earth, these towers, designed to handle AC currents, are instead flooded with DC currents. This may cause them to overheat, melt, or even explode, as was the case in 1989 in Quebec, Canada.
“What’s scary are these cascading effects,” Justin Kasper, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told me.
“The average big American city has several days of food for people to survive. We use GPS and computers and trucks to do real-time delivery now, but if you lost all power in one city, what would you do? The problem is trying to move more than 100 million people when there’s no [unaffected] nearby city to evacuate to.”
At the time of the CME’s arrival, a G5 geomagnetic storm alert—the highest on the space weather scale—would be in full effect. Life as we know it would pause. Cellular towers would begin to fail. Anything reliant on local power, from your cellphone charger to critical infrastructure, would be inoperable. This includes “last mile” communications as well, such as cable TV or internet.
A separate, 2008 report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) theorized that a “moderately severe” geomagnetic storm could leave 130 million Americans without power. According to FEMA, power grids on the the east and west coast of America would be hardest hit.
A moderately severe storm would cost the US economy $2 trillion in total, and recovery could take up to 10 years, estimated NAS.
The mere existence of FEMA’s report, however, proves that space weather is a big enough threat to warrant action; something that hasn’t always been the case.
“It’s good to have civil authorities paying attention. It’s natural. People are using cellphones and GPS all the time, so [these threats] are more important, objectively. We shouldn’t overemphasize them, but it’s the way the world is going,” Marco Velli, a senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told me.
Under the Obama administration, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy released new guidelines in 2015 for enhancing space weather preparedness. The action plan required data sharing between government agencies, and called for more international collaboration. That same year, NASA launched the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), a satellite that served as a “space weather buoy.” President Drumpf’s proposed budget for the agency would cut funding for Earth-facing instruments on DSCOVR prior to the end of the mission.
Earlier this year, the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act, which intends to follow in the steps of the Obama administration’s plan, was introduced by a bipartisan group of senators. It has yet to pass the House of Representatives.
“Things are definitely moving in a direction that makes me feel more comfortable,” Kasper said. “But we’re not there yet.”
Dear Rebecca Boyle,
Thanks for writing the NBCNews article:
I realize your background as a journalist may not provide you with the depth to answer the following questions, but, your pursuit of the information and the tracking down of the individuals whom you could interview may give you an even better broad-view of the situation at hand.
I’ve studied, from an armchair I’ll admit, the topic of CMEs and the devastation they might cause. I’ve written essays here and there on the topic and have even written a fiction narrative on the subject (as a prologue to a novel).
There is one piece of the puzzle I have yet to see discussed regarding sun storms, which is:
If the coronal plasma which induces incredible currents in electricity conducting wires and conduits can do so to a nation’s electrical grid — why can’t the same induction currents be generated within other massive wired systems?
Take any common building in any city on the planet. Imagine the miles of copper wire that thread through the building. Not just electrical wire, but communications wire too. And consider every small in-house or in-business transformer or power supply with the hundreds of meters of copper wire wound into coils. Additionally, consider the power generation transformers and generators themselves — not just the grid that connects them but their own miles of wire wound tight into massive coils.
Everyone of these, I believe, is subject to plasma induction currents.
What happens when your own home’s substantial set of power supplies and wire networks are buzzing with undrainable electric current? Heat is what happens. Is is possible for CMEs of a size as great as the Carrington Event (or greater) to actually induce spontaneous fires in such devices and wired networks?
I’ve never heard this topic broached.
The world in 1859 cannot be remotely compared to the world today in lieu of our wiredness. This assumption, in concert with the fact that technologically dependent humanity has never experienced such events (which may be common through out solar history (if not galactic history)), give me pause.
Is it possible that not only our electrical grids are in jeopardy from CMEs, but our own homes, buildings, airplanes, freighters, towns and cities are too.
“Excitement is building over European plans to launch a new space-weather satellite that would drastically improve forecasts of how solar storms will affect Earth.
The European Space Agency (ESA) hopes to send the probe to a gravitationally stable point in space known as Lagrange point 5 (L5) by around 2023, where it would provide a unique, side-on view of streams of charged particles heading towards Earth. The strongest of such eruptions, known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), can knock out navigation and communications satellites, interfere with aeroplane navigation systems and disrupt power grids.
Currently, probes can only look at incoming space weather head-on. The side-on view would allow scientists to measure the speed of the bursts with greater accuracy. And by observing the Sun’s surface as it rotates towards Earth, the probe would give a preview of sunspots, some of which produce CMEs, before they directly face Earth (see ‘Parking space-weather probes’).
“An L5 mission would give something the others don’t have,” says Hermann Opgenoorth, a space-plasma physicist at the Swedish Institute of Space Physics in Uppsala. “We’re excited that it’s finally going ahead.”
European ministers agreed to fund the first design phase of the €450-million (US$478-million) mission with between €20 million and €30 million at a meeting in Lucerne, Switzerland, last month. The space-weather mission would be ESA’s first aimed at forecasting, rather than pure science. ESA officials will ask for the rest of the funding at the next ministerial meeting in 2019.
Technically, ESA has yet to decide whether the satellite will go to L5 or to another gravitationally stable point, known as L1, between Earth and the Sun. Andreas Ottenbacher at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, who is a member of ESA’s Space Situational Awareness Programme, says that sending a new mission to L1 is essential, but the United States looks likely to do that in the early 2020s, leaving Europe free to explore the L5 mission.
L1 is well populated with probes, but some are ageing, such as the 20-year-old joint ESA–NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). And others, such as the US Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), lack a coronagraph — an instrument needed to detect the onset of a CME, the most dangerous form of space weather.
Data from NASA’s twin STEREO satellites, one of which passed through L5 during its orbit of the Sun between 2008 and 2010, suggest that a permanent craft there should cut the uncertainty in CME impact time from 10 hours to less than 6 hours, says Mike Hapgood, a space-weather physicist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Didcot, UK, who chairs the UK Space Environment Impact Experts group. The profile view would also allow scientists to see whether separate CMEs interact to build up into a much greater shockwave.
Moreover, the L5 point would give a preview of the surface of the rotating Sun soon to be facing Earth — with benefits for forecasting and solar physics. Currently, forecasts from L1 can raise the alarm only once a ball of plasma has gone hurtling into space. With plasma speeds as high as 3,000 kilometres per second, this means just 15–17 hours’ warning — well short of the 2–3 days that power-grid operators say they need to prepare for disruption, says Juha-Pekka Luntama, who heads ESA’s space-weather team at the European Space Operations Centre.
From its shifted position around Earth’s orbit, an L5 craft would see the Sun’s rotating surface four to five days before one at L1 would. Although scientists can’t yet predict with great certainty when sunspots will erupt, just seeing the approach of active zones could allow them to raise an early warning that a dangerous space-weather event is more likely, says Luntama.
“It’s a little like a tornado warning in the US — you can’t tell exactly when it’s going to happen or where, but you can give a warning that there’s an increased probability of dangerous conditions,” Luntamasays. Combined with L1 data, an L5 craft would allow scientists to track sunspots for longer, which should help them to eventually work out what makes the features erupt and when, adds Opgenoorth.
An extreme space-weather event has not hit Earth since 1859, when a CME caused telegraph equipment to catch fire. There was a comparable event in 2012, but it happened on the opposite side of the Sun so did not affect Earth. The impact of an equivalent event, given today’s infrastructure, would be enormous, adds Luntama.
“We have been lucky that we have not been hit by a really big event,” he says. “We will be hit eventually, the question is, ‘when?’””