A massive solar storm could keep us grounded on Earth for a decade

Thursday, September 15, 2011
By Paul Martin


It’s decently likely that, sometime in the future, a major solar storm will hit Earth, wreaking havoc on our infrastructure and crippling our satellites. But there’s a more long-term danger: space could become too dangerously radioactive to stay there.

And some new research indicates that we could face a situation that keeps us from exploring space, within our lifetimes.
While we haven’t sent humans beyond low-Earth orbit in close to forty years, we’ve carved out quite a niche for ourselves in the area of space directly around our planet. The International Space Station provides a constant human presence in space, and we’ve built up a massive network of satellites that are crucial to our communications infrastructure, not to mention navigation, scientific research, weather monitoring, and a bunch of other things.

What allows us to keep humans and all that sensitive electronics up there is the presence of huge clouds of plasma, which extend out to a few times Earth’s radius and provide a buffer zone against cosmic radiation. Without this protective cloud, electromagnetic waves could form, which would send deadly radiation bursts into the space above Earth.

The problem is that this cloud can be destroyed if a big enough solar storm hits it. Recent Sun activity in October 2003 caused the cloud to contract to just two times the Earth’s radius, and scientists believe that a huge solar outburst in 1859 completely destroyed the protective layer. Of course, there weren’t nearly as many communications satellites up in space in the mid-19th century, so that didn’t have nearly as big an impact as the destruction of the cloud would if it happened today.

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