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Monthly Archives: September 2011

Space Storms to Pose Greater Risk to Flyers and Astronauts

If you thought the outlook for Earth’s climate looked bleak, don’t look up. A new study suggests that space weather—the hail of energetic particles above our atmosphere—is set to worsen in coming decades. The grim forecast suggests that astronauts and frequent flyers will face greater radiation hazards and could rule out a crewed mission to Mars before 2050.

Space weather is a general term for the environmental conditions above Earth’s atmosphere. When space weather is bad, dangerous particles abound. These include protons and ions, known as galactic cosmic rays (GRCs), raining down at near-light speed from space, and similar particles coming in bursts from the sun, called solar energetic particles (SEPs).

The sun has the biggest impact on space weather. The radiation it emits fluctuates both over the short term and across centuries. When the sun is emitting more radiation, it generates a strong external magnetic field, which swaddles the solar system in the “heliosphere”—a shield against GRCs. On the downside, a more active sun is thought to emit SEPs more consistently. Currently, the sun’s activity seems to be fading from a “grand maximum” that has been with us since the 1920s, suggesting a new minimum is upon us.

Although that might seem like good news, it’s actually not, according to space meteorologist Michael Lockwood of the University of Reading in the United Kingdom and colleagues. Lockwood’s group has analyzed how variations in GRCs and SEPs reaching Earth have correlated with the sun’s activity over hundreds of years. No one was recording the influx of GRCs or SEPs back then, so the researchers use proxy data taken from the composition of ancient ice cores dug up at the poles. Nitrates are produced as GRCs react with the atmosphere, so an ice sample containing more nitrates is likely to have been frozen at a time of abundant GRCs. Meanwhile, SEPs are thought to fill ice with rare isotopes of beryllium-10.

Lockwood’s group found that in times of low solar activity, there seem to have been more GRCs reaching Earth. This wasn’t too surprising: low activity means the solar system’s shield—the heliosphere—would have been weaker. The researchers also found that low solar activity seemed to bring fewer SEP events. But to their surprise, there was a caveat: Although fewer, the SEP events appeared to be far more intense. The worst time for SEPs appeared to be at times of “middling” solar activity—precisely the transition period we are thought to be entering. The results were published last month in Geophysical Research Letters.

How dangerous is this? One problem could arise for frequent flyers, because the thin air at high altitudes offers less protection from space weather. Currently, someone could take up to five long-haul flights every year that go near the poles—where GRCs and SEPs are channeled most—without exceeding the recommended limit on radiation exposure. But in coming decades, Lockwood explains, that safe number could drop to two. “I wouldn’t want to be on a plane when an SEP event went off,” he says.

Astronomer Sten Odenwald of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, thinks we should keep the risk in perspective. He says many people will face a greater risk of radiation from natural radon gas seeping into their basements. What’s more, Bob Rutledge, who monitors space weather at the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado, adds that Lockwood and colleagues’ predictions haven’t yet been tested to see if they’ll hold up in the coming years. “Many of these theories come out, and some will prove to be right,” he says. Until time bears out a theory, Rutledge says he won’t “change the way I do business.”

Astronauts might face more problems, particularly those headed for the moon or beyond. Scientists currently predict that a roundtrip to Mars exposes a male astronaut to a lifetime’s worth of radiation; female astronauts experience double what’s considered a safe lifetime dose. But Lockwood believes that in our transition to minimum solar activity—which could last anywhere between 40 and 200 years—this dose could increase at least twofold.

Biophysicist Francis Cucinotta of NASA’s Space Radiation Program at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, says it should be possible to shield astronauts against the SEP events. But GRCs would require an amount of shielding that is “not feasible” for spacecraft, he says. That means a crewed Mars mission, which NASA still has penciled in for the 2030s, would need another means of protecting astronauts.

Correction: The original version of this article attributed a quote addressing the hazard of natural radon gas to William Murtagh of the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado. The article has now been corrected to attribute this quote, rightly, to Sten Odenwald of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

by Jon Cartwright

 
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Posted by on September 28, 2011 in Science, Space

 

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The Choice

I just finished this book and found it interesting in some ways and unbelievable in others. It did provoke some unique ideas and a few things I had not known about. Anyone that is interested in the coming years or the 2012 theories will find this book refreshingly direct and simple to understand. I have heard Mike Bara speak many times on Coast to Coast AM and have always enjoyed his interviews, as for the books facts, some of them seem a bit wrong, but then again, I’m not a professional scientist.

Mike Bara is an aerospace engineering consultant, lecturer, and the coauthor of the New York Times best-seller Dark Mission: The Secret History of NASA. He is currently starring in the documentary film Moon Rising, and will be starring in and producing his own documentary film based on Dark Mission for Sacred Mysteries Productions. In his previous career, Bara spent more than 25 years designing and consulting on engineering and Computer Aided Design for a variety of aerospace companies.

Overview:

There is a great shift coming in the near future. We can all feel it. But what does it truly herald for the planet we inhabit? Is there reason for concern about the apocalyptic prophecies of the Mayan calendar, and is there an underlying physics driving these changes?

How do planetary alignments and astronomical events such as the ones predicted for 2012 affect your consciousness? And most importantly, what can each of us do to influence this coming shift in both consciousness and physical reality?

New York Times best-selling author Mike Bara examines all these questions and many more in The Choice, which also includes:

  • Detailed descriptions of a revolutionary new theory of physics that proves the theory behind The Secret
  • How to use your own inner light–the power of your mind and spirit–to influence the physical world
  • How governments the world over are preparing for the coming decade of change
  • How to determine your place in the Next AgeIf we can truly can make this world into anything we want, which path will we choose?
 
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Posted by on September 28, 2011 in Book Review

 

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Choices

Silver River State Park

One trail has more alligators than the other. Guess which one.

 
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Posted by on September 24, 2011 in Photo

 

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Silver River

This was a sign we saw on the river while we were camping last week. I didn’t see any alligators, still, I wouldn’t let my dog near the water.

Silver River State Park, Florida, USA

Our Little Girl, Ocala. As you can see, she wasn't getting near the water!

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2011 in Photo

 

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Return of a Killer Volcano

I have been following volcanoes for awhile now, and we are long overdue for a large explosion from several monsters around the globe. Yellowstone happens to be only one of them. I often wonder if humankind can survive such a catastrophic eruption as it would mean banding together, helping each other, giving to one another. In such an event would we be able to tear our inner walls down and help someone despite their race, color, sex, sexual preference, religion? I know I could, and many of the people I am close to. But I worry. . .

Photograph by Sigurdur Hrafn Stefnisson

 

What if one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recent history happened today? A new study suggests that a blast akin to one that devastated Iceland in the 1780s would waft noxious gases southeastward and kill tens of thousands of people in Europe. And in a modern world that is intimately connected by air traffic and international trade, economic activity across much of Europe, including the production and import of food, could plummet.

From June of 1783 until February of 1784, the Laki volcano in south-central Iceland erupted. Although the event didn’t produce large amounts of volcanic ash, it did spew an estimated 122 million metric tons of sulfur dioxide gas into the sky—a volume slightly higher than human industrial activity today produces in the course of a year, says Anja Schmidt, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.

Historical records suggest that in the 2 years after the Laki eruption, approximately 10,000 Icelanders died—about one-fifth of the population—along with nearly three-quarters of the island’s livestock. Parish records in England reveal that in the summer of 1783, when the event began, death rates were between 10% and 20% above normal. The Netherlands, Sweden, and Italy reported episodes of decreased visibility, respiratory difficulties, and increased mortality associated with the eruption. According to one study, an estimated 23,000 people died from exposure to the volcanic aerosols in Britain alone. But elsewhere in Europe, it’s difficult to separate deaths triggered by the air pollution from those caused by starvation or disease, which were prominent causes of death at the time.

To assess how such an eruption might affect the densely populated Europe of today, Schmidt and her colleagues plugged a few numbers into a computer simulation. They used weather models to estimate where sulfur dioxide emissions from an 8-month-long eruption that commenced in June would end up. They also estimated the resulting increases in the concentrations of airborne particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers across, the size of aerosols that are most easily drawn into human lungs and that cause cardiopulmonary distress. Then, they used modern medical data to estimate how many people those aerosols would kill.

In the first 3 months after the hypothetical eruption began, the average aerosol concentration over Europe would increase by 120%, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The number of days during the eruption in which aerosol concentrations exceed air-quality standards would rise to 74, when a normal period that length typically includes only 38. Not surprisingly, the air would become thickest with dangerous particles in areas downwind of the eruption, such as Iceland and northwestern Europe, where aerosol concentrations would more than triple. But aerosol concentrations in southern Europe would also increase dramatically, rising by 60%.

In the year after the hypothetical eruption commences, the increased air pollution swept from Iceland to Europe would cause massive amounts of heart and lung disease, killing an estimated 142,000 people. Fewer than half that number of Europeans die from seasonal flu each year.

At least four Laki-sized eruptions have occurred in Iceland in the past 1150 years, Schmidt and her colleagues say. So the new figures are cause for concern.

The team “has done a good job of showing where volcanic aerosols would end up, and the human health response to such aerosols is well understood,” says Brian Toon, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “This is all very solid science.”

Icelandic volcanoes shut down European air traffic for more than a week in April 2010 and for several days in May of this year. But those eruptions are tiny compared with a Laki-sized eruption, which could ground airplanes for 6 months or more, says Alan Robock, an atmospheric scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Such an event would have a huge impact on crop yields and, by affecting shipping and air traffic, would also affect Europeans’ ability to import food, he notes. It could even have a dramatic effect on daily life, he says. “If there are sulfur dioxide clouds over Europe, people with respiratory problems can’t do much about it except stay indoors.”

*This article has been corrected. In the first paragraph and in the image caption, compass directions were originally misstated and should have read southeastward and southeastern, respectively.

by Sid Perkins

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2011 in News Article, Photo, Science

 

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International Space Station & Sun

The Brightness of the Sun

The bright sun, a portion of the International Space Station and Earth’s horizon are featured in this image photographed during the STS-134 mission’s fourth spacewalk in May 2011. The image was taken using a fish-eye lens attached to an electronic still camera.

Image Credit: NASA

 
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Posted by on September 22, 2011 in NASA, Photo

 

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Intense Lightning Display At NASA’s Launch Pad

 
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Posted by on September 21, 2011 in NASA, Photo

 

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