The Sun is the source of life on our planet, without it we simply wouldn‘t be here. But it also has a really destructive side.
The Sun is a constant source of energy – it’s essentially a giant nuclear reactor with enough fuel for the next 5 billion years. Like all nuclear reactors, unless controlled properly, there can be literally explosive results; and we are definitely not in control of the Sun.
Blowing up a Storm
Solar flares are giant magnetic storms on the surface of the Sun that send vast amounts of highly energised charged particles, known as Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) into space. This high energy plasma has the ability to obliterate living cells, and if not for the magnetic field surrounding our planet, life would probably have never got started.
Fortunately the Earth’s magnetic field deflects much of it, and the plasma that does get through is responsible for the swathes of dancing colour in the sky called the aurora borealis and the aurora australis.
GPS satellites orbiting the Earth are vulnerable to CMEs as they have virtually none of the Earth’s magnetic field to shield them. Vast resources, including the space weather project are used to prevent CMEs melting electric circuits and turning £50 million pounds worth of technology into a tin can in a flash.
Space for improvement
Satellites need to be as light as possible to keep launch costs down, so adding shielding to protect them is an expensive business. An alternative is to make the electronic circuits out of more robust materials. One such material is silicon-carbide and these circuits promise to be as cost effective as silicon as well as withstanding extreme temperatures and vibrations.
Solar activity is already continually monitored to enable better predictions of when CMEs are likely and astrophysicists are developing new techniques, such as using advanced computer simulations to model the behaviour of the Sun to improve predictions further.
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