Space weather can kill astronauts. This is one of the motivations for funding space weather. Solar events-- flares, particle storms, and coronal mass ejections-- can knock out GPS and cell phone reception, screw up radio and radar, and endanger airline pilots flying the polar routes. All of these damaging effects are well worth mitigating.
But what about circumstances higher up?
In an article titled Fake Astronaut Gets Hit by Artificial Solar Flare, NASA reports on their upcoming experiment to see just how much damage a solar flare would cause to an unprotected astronaut.
On Earth, we have the luxury of being able to do something, if given advanced notice. Travellers can be advised about GPS and cell phone outtages. The military can plan around disruption. And airplanes can and do reroute when there's a chance of solar trouble. But what befalls an astronaut, up past the shielding we get Earth's magnetic field, when they get notice of an event hours or minutes away? Where can they go?
I was told a possibly apocryphal take from the Apollo, on the instructions to astronauts if there should be a solar event while they were on the Moon. "Maximize shielding. Climb into the lowest point of the lunar lander. Have one astronaut lay on top of the other. The one on the bottom might live."
In 1972, there was a massive solar flare, between the Apollo 16 and 17 missions. NASA decided to see what would have happened if, oh, there had been astronauts up in an Apollo 16.5 at the time. Now, when I did work predicting how long CCD detectors could last in space, I used Monte Carlo computer simulations, and there's only so far a simulation can take you when dealing with a complex system. And few things are more complex than the human body.
NASA method? Create a dummy, fill it with human blood cells, then stick it in front of the Brookhaven particle accelerator and simulate a solar proton storm. Take it out and measure the cell damage, refill it, repeat.
In comic books, putting a person in front of a particle accelerator gives them superpowers. In the real world, putting a dummy in front of the beam may just give us a handle on saving the lives of some ordinary heroes. NASA's approach is simple, direct, brutal, and hopefully enlightening.
Stay tuned for the results, same NASA time, same NASA channel.
Space Weather Can Kill Astronauts?
By Alex "Sandy" Antunes | June 5th 2009 05:01 PM | Print | E-mail