NASA watching 'perfect storm' of galactic cosmic rays

Astronauts and satellite integrated circuits are at risk of an ongoing tempest of galactic cosmic rays that scientists say is at an all-time high.

According to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, galactic cosmic rays come from outside the solar system and are made up of subatomic particles accelerated to almost light speed by distant supernova explosions. Cosmic rays cause showers of particles when they hit Earth's atmosphere but pose their greatest health hazard, radiation, to astronauts in space. They aren't too healthy for satellites either, as a single cosmic ray can disable the unit if one hits an unlucky integrated circuit, NASA said.

"In 2009, cosmic ray intensities have increased 19% beyond anything we've seen in the past 50 years," said Richard Mewaldt of Caltech in a release. "The increase is significant, and it could mean we need to re-think how much radiation shielding astronauts take with them on deep-space missions."

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NASA says the surge is being caused by what it calls a "solar minimum," a deep lull in solar activity that began around 2007 and continues today. Researchers have long known that cosmic rays increase when solar activity decreases. Right now solar activity is as weak as it has been in modern times, setting the stage for what Mewaldt calls "a perfect storm of cosmic rays."

Mewaldt also says the solar wind is flagging. "Measurements by the Ulysses spacecraft show that solar wind pressure is at a 50-year low, so the magnetic bubble that protects the solar system is not being inflated as much as usual." A smaller bubble gives cosmic rays a shorter shot into the solar system. Once a cosmic ray enters the solar system, it must "swim upstream" against the solar wind. Solar wind speeds have dropped to very low levels in 2008 and 2009, making it easier than usual for a cosmic ray to proceed, he stated.

Still, the Earth is in no great danger from the cosmic bombardment. The planet's atmosphere and magnetic field combine to form a formidable shield against space radiation, NASA points out.

Earlier this year a NASA-funded study aimed to show some of the first clear economic data that quantifies the effect extreme weather conditions in space have on Earth.

The study, conducted by the National Academy of Sciences noted that besides emitting a continuous stream of plasma called the solar wind, the sun periodically releases billions of tons of matter called coronal mass ejections. These immense clouds of material, when directed toward Earth, can cause large magnetic storms in the magnetosphere and upper atmosphere, NASA said, explaining that such space weather can impact the performance and reliability of space-borne and ground-based technological systems.

One of the driving reasons for the study is that the sun is currently near the minimum of its 11-year activity cycle but solar storms will increase in frequency and intensity toward the next solar maximum, which is expected to occur around 2012.

This story, "NASA watching 'perfect storm' of galactic cosmic rays" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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