Space weather can be complex and dramatic. In volume one of Soyuz Blue I depict the International Space Station’s orbit degraded by sunspots and solar flares. Solar storms can indeed degrade the orbits of satellites by heating and expanding the upper atmosphere and increasing drag. The erosion of orbit due to solar weather was one of the main reasons that NASA was unable to rescue America’s first space station, Skylab, from a fiery re-entry in 1979.
These kinds of solar events can also generate radiation and put astronauts and cosmonauts at risk. During solar flares they will need to fall back to more shielded parts of the Space Station. As depicted in my novel, these “safe” areas are in the Russian sections.
How bad can space weather be on the Earth’s surface? We only have been aware of this phenomena for 200 years, which is nothing in the life span of our 5 billion year old sun. Thousands of miles of exposed wires in power grids are at risk of overload from storms. Transformers can explode, and once destroyed, are difficult and expensive to replace. Oil and gas pipelines are also at risk, and it is thought that sunspots can increase corrosion and degrade the integrity of the metal.
The worst recorded solar storm is the Carrington Event of 1859. This storm generated intense aurora borealis displays that were seen from Canada to the Caribbean. The auroras were so bright that people were able to read a newspaper in the dead of night. Telegraph systems all over Europe and North America failed. Sparks flew off pylons. Telegraph operators received electrical shocks. Even when the power supplies were disconnected, some telegraph stations could continue to receive and send messages.
Sun weather comes in 11 year cycles, and in 2014 we were at a period of “solarmax:” a period of intense activity. Fortunately, this “max” seems much quieter than in previous years.
What would a really gnarly solar storm look like?
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