NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer, which is critical to space-weather forecasting, is nearing its end of life. Satellite operators fear the end could come at any time, according to Irene Klotz of Discovery News.

ACE provides advanced warning of high-energy particles from solar storms and changes in the solar wind. This information is critical for space-weather predictions that help ensure the safety of ISS astronauts, high-latitude airline flights, and future suborbital space travelers as well as unmanned satellites and the terrestrial power grid. Pipelines are also vulnerable, especially those at high latitudes like the Alaska Pipeline.

There is currently no backup for the satellite. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Air Force are hoping to launch a replacement, the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), before ACE fails. At the moment, however, the launch its not yet scheduled and the DSCOVR satellite is in storage at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center.

This report is especially timely. The news came just as Earth was being hit by the biggest solar storm in years.

X-Class Solar Foare

Written by Astro1 on March 9th, 2012 , Planetary Defense, Space Medicine and Safety

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

The recent skydiving death of Sean Carey may have some interesting parallels for spaceflight and space exploration.  As Abby Sewell said in the Los Angeles Times:

The deaths reflect a divergent nationwide trend: equipment upgrades and safety rules have reduced overall skydiving fatalities among novices — but the smaller, more aerodynamically designed parachutes have allowed more experienced divers to take more risks.

Increasingly, industry veterans said, fatal accidents involve experts attempting advanced maneuvers with high-performance equipment.

We are likely to see a similar trend in human spaceflight over the next few decades. As suborbital and orbital spaceflight become more routine, safety will improve as operators benefit from experience (the learning-curve effect). At the same time, however, low-cost access to space and in-space infrastructure such as propellant depots will enable explorers to undertake riskier missions into deep space with increasing frequency. The result will be an increasing number of fatalities among NASA and commercial explorers on advanced missions to the Moon, the asteroids, Mars, and beyond, while near-space missions become safer and more routine. That should not be a cause for alarm, however. It is part of the normal process of opening a new frontier.

Written by Astro1 on March 3rd, 2012 , Space Medicine and Safety

Red Bull is sponsoring a parachute jump from a high-altitude balloon at the edge of space – 120,000 feet. The project is called Stratos.

In the early days of the Space Age, the US Air Force conducted high-altitude manned balloon experiments in Project Man High and Project Excelsior. In Project Excelsior, Colonel Joe Kittinger set a world’s record for the highest parachute jump, which the Stratos project seeks to break.

Even though this is not a rocket flight, it is helping to pave the way for citizen space exploration by testing spacesuit and life-support systems. When Felix Baumgartner walks out of the Stratos balloon gondola at 120,000 feet, it will be “one small step for a citizen explorer, one giant leap for citizen science.”

Written by Astro1 on February 19th, 2012 , Citizen Exploration, Space Medicine and Safety

Space Safety is a new magazine. The pilot issue and the first two regular issues are now available as free downloads. Click here to view the download page.

Written by Astro1 on February 16th, 2012 , Books and Resources, Space Medicine and Safety