When scientists someone mentions “planetary defense,” most people think about asteroid impacts. Asteroids are not the only space hazard that poses a risk to life and civilization here on Earth, however.

Space weather, caused by the unstable behavior of the sun, affects life on Earth in many ways. It creates the colorful auroras that are enjoyed in higher latitudes, but it can also interfere with communications. Space weather can create increased radiation risks for space travelers and even air travelers. Most people don’t realize that airlines routinely monitor space weather forecasts and sometimes need to reroute flights that normally go over the polar regions, due to increased solar activity.

Large solar storms could have much more serious effects. They could damage or destroy communications, weather, and GPS navigation satellites, as well as the terrestrial power grid. In 1989, a solar storm took down the Quebec power grid leaving 6 million customers temporarily without power. A larger storm could create more widespread, catastrophic damage which could take years to repair. A single storm could damage or destroy electrical power plants throughout an entire hemisphere. The economic impact of such an event is estimated at one trillion dollars per year. Fortunately, we have not seen a really large storm since 1859.

IEEE Spectrum looks at the potential effects of a solar superstorm and some measures that might be taken to protect the planet. There are some relatively simple modifications that can be made to protect power plants, but we also need better space weather forecasting and monitoring.

Written by Astro1 on March 4th, 2012 , Planetary Defense, Space Medicine and Safety

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