Solar Flare Radiation Dangers: Are We Ready?

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Solar Blast: Image Courtesy of NASA

It is a violent environment out there for our Earth, and all that impacts the fragile Earth affects us. As long as the Earth has existed, solar flares have been sending doses of radiation to the planet’s surface.

A worst-case scenario of an extreme event,” says Michael Hesse, chief of NASA’s Space Weather Laboratory at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. “If it were to happen and we don’t take any precautions, it would probably knock out our power grid for an extended period of time and destroy a sizable fraction of our satellite infrastructure.”

Solar flares, a sudden violent release of intense energy from the sun, affect Earth through electromagnetic radiation, the driving force of the potential destruction. The energy released during a large flare can emit up to 1032  ergs of energy per second, a significant increase in the electromagnetic radiation headed our way. This is equivalent to ten million times greater than the energy released from a volcanic explosion, and could wreak havoc on Earth.

Electromagnetic Radiation

Electromagnetic radiation is the movement of radiation and particles through space, close to, or at, the speed of light. Particles, including electrons, protons and heavy nuclei, are heated, accelerated, and released. Magnetic disturbances and electromagnetic radiation, including gamma rays, x-rays (short wavelength, high energy), ultraviolet, optical (visual), infrared, and radio waves (long wave length, lower energy) are released during a solar flare. High-energy radiation reaches Earth first, while the slower particles arrive later.

Solar Flare Radiation: Impact on Earth

Earth's plasmashere protects the planet from radiation: Image courtesy of NASA

Solar flares impact Earth only when they occur on the side of the Sun facing Earth. Solar flares directed toward the Earth affect the upper atmosphere, the ionosphere, immediately – disrupting long-range radio communications. Flares can also cause magnetic storms and circulating electrical currents. X-ray and UV radiation from a solar flare strips electrons from atoms in the ionosphere producing free negatively-charged electrons, leaving behind positively-charged ions. Both can absorb some wavelengths of electromagnetic energy while bending other wavelengths.

These effects cause the initial radiation increase of the ionization of the upper atmosphere to interfere with short-wave radio communication, and heat the outer atmosphere. The heated air expands and can affect low orbiting satellites and potential orbital decay as well. High energy x-rays can damage spacecraft electronics and pose risks to astronauts outside Earth’s protective shell. Communication systems can be disrupted on airplane flights, and powerful solar flares can even generate huge holes in the ionosphere.

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