Space Weather: Why NASA Scientists Say Severe Sun Storms Could Destroy Life as We Know It

By Anthony Smith on August 16, 2012 2:51 PM EDT

The sun provides all our energy needs with one hour of energy. Researchers are getting closer to harvesting all that power.
A case of serious space weather: a dazzling, massive solar storm. (Photo: NASA)

Due to the incredibly harsh strength of our space weather, we may have to start covering our iPhones in sunscreen.

It's no secret that knowing the enemy is half the battle, but according to a new report developed with the help of expert insight from the science community, that enemy may very well be the sun.

This report, released on August 15, 2012 by the National Research Council, clues us in to the specific goals for studying the sun, space weather, and the long-term effects of our star's solo activity, as well as recommendations for how to implement programs that will be effective in spite of real concerns, like a dwindling budget and its many constraints.

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This study is only the second for the council's aim at preparing decadal surveys for solar and space physics, which cover topics that include how integral it is to know more about space weather. In it, the committee produced a 454-page report that identified the absolute highest priorities for research in heliophysics for the coming decade, 2013 to 2022.

Contributing to the study were over 85 scientists and engineers of various space systems. The committee was led by Daniel Baker, a researcher from the University of Colorado in Boulder. The ultimate goal of their study was to support the current and future initiatives of our government's agencies-- chief among them, of course, NASA.

In the words of Thomas Zuburchen, a Professor at the University of Michigan and the vice chairman of this decadal survey, the report seeks to emphasize the importance for research to more comprehensively understand the sun, our solar system's battery, in the hopes of diving to the bottom of what causes destructive space weather.

"We really have a feeling that the next decade is one that really moves us from a decade focusing to understand drivers of space weather to one that is focused on responses of that," Zuburchen told the press.

Massive solar storms may sound painful, especially if you've been suffering from a sunburn in this particularly harsh summer, but they're actually not directly harmful to human beings. They will, however, wreak havoc on our planet's electromagnetic infrastructure.

In 2009, NASA released a report predicting that a massive solar storm, the highest we've seen this far, would cause catastrophic damage to our electronic networks-- damages which, in their estimates, would take 2 trillion dollars and lots of time to fix.

This isn't the first time there's been a massive solar storm like this-- the last time was in 1859-- but because of how important electronics are to how we communicate, as well as the potential shutdown of that basic system, it could be one of the biggest catastrophes to hit our planet.

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