Mar 2, 2021 - Science

We're starting to take the Sun seriously

Illustration of the sun as a bomb with an extra long lit fuse. 

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Politicians, the public and scientists are increasingly paying attention to the danger solar storms pose for life on Earth and off of it.

Why it matters: Solar storms can wreak havoc on our modern, technology-dependent way of life.

  • The most extreme events can overload satellites, harm astronauts in space and bring down electrical grids around the world.
  • But even a quiet Sun can harm the electrical grid through normal wear and tear.
  • "It's not necessarily about catastrophic failure, but it just decreases the lifetime of the infrastructure, which costs money in the long run," says Alexa Halford, a solar scientist at NASA.

Driving the news: In October, former president Donald Trump signed the PROSWIFT Act into law to aid in studying and forecasting space weather.

  • A fleet of new spacecraft — like the Parker Solar Probe and Solar Orbiter — are gathering data about the Sun now to help researchers learn more about the inner-workings of our nearest star and advance methods of forecasting in the future.
  • All of this is unfolding as the Sun's next 11-year solar cycle governing its activity is beginning, with some forecasters predicting it will be more extreme than the last, relatively quiet cycle.

The big picture: These advancements in policy and science are all expected to lead to space weather being treated in much the same way weather forecasting is treated on Earth.

  • NOAA, NASA and other agencies are now working to develop systems, as required by the new law, to help get forecasting and other data into the hands of the people that need it, including utilities and satellite operators.
  • Creating an effective system will require "funding the very basic research to answer the many questions that need answering in space weather, and then taking that and making something out of it into a model that can be used into operation," said William Murtagh, program coordinator at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center.

Yes, but: Agencies are still waiting on funding to actually make those changes required by the PROSWIFT Act.

  • The government, utilities and satellite operators will need new scientific tools that can gather specific data for forecasting and for basic science that can help researchers get a better understanding of the star's behavior.

The intrigue: The Sun has been particularly quiet over the last two decades. In that time, hundreds of new satellites have been launched to orbit, possibly presenting new challenges if the Sun's activity increases.

  • It's not clear exactly how a more active solar cycle might affect new satellites in orbit today, experts say, raising concerns about the risk of creating new space junk.
  • Not all companies readily share information about how their satellites are negatively impacted by space weather with the government, due to concerns about competition, giving forecasters and scientists incomplete or limited information to go on.

What's next: As NASA works to send astronauts to the Moon in the coming years, space weather prediction and protection will also need to take center stage for the space agency.

  • Radiation emitted by the Sun during solar storms could harm people outside of Earth's atmosphere, who don't have the full protection of the planet's magnetic field.
  • NASA is expected to send a shelter to the Moon to protect astronauts in case of a solar storm, but it takes about 30 minutes to get the tent set up, so having some kind of early warning forecasting in place will be key for safety.
  • "If you're really serious about Artemis and the road to Mars, you need to be setting up a safety net on space weather in parallel, and you can't wait to the last minute," Scott McIntosh, deputy director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said.
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