Solar Storms Could Imperil Future Moon Missions, Study Finds

Scientists have discovered patterns in solar events that could improve planning of activities affected by extreme space weather, such as space exploration, satellite operations and power grid maintenance on Earth.

The moon seen from the east. (Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

(CN) — Solar storms could imperil planned missions to return humans to the Moon amid a sharp increase in extreme space weather, according to new research revealed Thursday.

Studying 150 years of space weather data, scientists at the University of Reading in the U.K. discovered patterns in extreme solar events that could pose extreme risks to astronauts and potentially disrupt power grids on Earth through global geomagnetic disturbances. The study was published in the journal Solar Physics.

Severe space weather is more likely to occur early in even-numbered solar cycles and late in odd-numbered cycles. The solar cycle is the cycle that the Sun’s magnetic field goes through every 11 years as its north and south poles switch places. Changes in the magnetic field cause giant eruptions such as solar flares on the Sun’s surface, sending bursts of energy and plasma into space.

Sun cycle 25 began in December 2019, signaling increased solar storms in the coming years that could endanger the NASA-led Artemis mission, which plans to return humans to the moon in 2024. However, Artemis could be delayed until the late 2020s.

NASA is no stranger to severe space weather. A major solar eruption in August 1972 between NASA’s Apollo 16 and 17 missions was strong enough cause major technical or health problems had it occurred while the astronauts were in space.

Scientists hope their new research minimizes such risk.

“Until now, the most extreme space-weather events were thought to be random in their timing and thus little could be done to plan around them,” said Professor Mathew Owens, a space physicist at the University of Reading, in a statement. “However, this research suggests they are more predictable, generally following the same ‘seasons’ of activity as smaller space-weather events.”

This split image shows the difference between an active Sun during solar maximum (on the left, captured in April 2014) and a quiet Sun during solar minimum (on the right, captured in December 2019). December 2019 marks the beginning of Solar Cycle 25, and the Sun’s activity will once again ramp up until solar maximum, predicted for 2025. (NASA photo)

The research also revealed important differences during the most active season, enabling scientists to make better space weather forecasts for the current solar cycle that will happen for the next decade.

“(Our study) suggests any significant space missions in the years ahead — including returning astronauts to the Moon and later, onto Mars — will be less likely to encounter extreme space-weather events over the first half of the solar cycle than the second,” Owens added.

While previous solar research relied on observation, the new study applied statistical modelling to storm timing for the first time. Scientists examined data recorded by ground-based instruments located in the UK and Australia that measure magnetic fields in the Earth’s atmosphere. This new approach revealed that extreme space weather follows patterns similar to moderate space weather.

What causes this? Scientists think severe solar storms occur because the orientation of the Sun’s large-scale magnetic field flips at solar maximum, positioning it opposite to Earth’s magnetic field early in even cycles and late in odd cycles.

In addition to making space travel less dangerous, scientists think this new finding could improve planning of activities affected by extreme space weather, such as power grid maintenance on Earth and satellite operations.

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