The Union Recorder

August 28, 2012

The sun provides the perfect storm

Beate Czogalla
The Union-Recorder

MILLEDGEVILLE — You might think of a movie here, but in fact the perfect storm is happening right here, right now, directly above your head. You can’t see it, but it has the potential to wreak as much or more havoc than any storm you’ve ever witnessed.

Compared to the weather in space, our weather here on Earth is friendly and benign, nothing to write home about. What the sun sends our way every single day in deadly radiation and particles should keep you up at night! Luckily, for most people that’s not the case because we rarely witness the effects of space weather here on Earth due to protective magnetic fields that shield us from the worst fallouts of solar storms. A lot of this dangerous material ends up in the Van Allen Radiation Belts, donut-shaped areas around the Earth containing trapped charged particles that start somewhere between 200 and 1,000 miles up, depending on — you guessed it — the sun’s current activity.

Any spacecraft orbiting the Earth had better stay below those belts or step on it and quickly traverse them, heading for a higher orbit. Any minute a spacecraft spends in the radiation belts increases the chances of electronics getting damaged. Any spacecraft that has to spend an extended period of time in the belts needs special shielding and protective gear to make it through intact.

So, needless to say, NASA is sending not just one but two identical spacecraft to permanently live in the Van Allen Belts, because how else will we ever learn about these dangerous areas if we don’t send an emissary to do the tough job?

Enter the RBSP twins, short for Radiation Belt Storm Probes. Surely those two have the worst job in the world, and with the Curiosity Rover currently hogging the headlines, the RBSPs may well head for unsung hero status soon, so it’s only fair if we learn a little bit about them.

They’re sending two because comparing the data from both spacecraft allows scientists to get better results more quickly, and it will allow them to differentiate between true fluctuations within the belts and boundaries between layers. While both spacecraft are well equipped to withstand the harsh environment of their assignment, their primary mission slated to be for two years. Most likely they’ll continue to operate after that time is done.

So how do solar storms affect us? We’ve discussed space weather here before, and you may remember that the Northern Lights are a visible manifestation that you can sometimes see as far south as Georgia. Solar storms knock out satellites and disrupt communication lines all over, so when your bank tells you they can’t process your check right now because “the satellite is down,” then that’s probably exactly what happened.

Let’s hope the twin spacecraft have a successful launch and a safe journey to their unsafe workplace!

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Beate Czogalla is the professor of theater design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a solar system ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA for many years. She can be reached at our_space2@yahoo