Imagine a world where every day is 70 degrees and sunny. Roads would be safer, you’d never get blue about a gray sky and every space shuttle could launch without an issue (a weather-related issue, at least).
Even in the warmer parts of the country, though, like California and Florida, idyllic weather isn’t a guarantee. When we get pounded with rain, thunderstorms, snow, wind or any other type of less-than-perfect weather, our lives can be seriously affected.
Human health and well-being are impacted, too. For example, hot weather can change how the blood throws through the veins, making a person with varicose veins get cramping, itching, and swelling.
Just as weather can have ripple effects on daily life and health here on earth, the same is true for space travel.
Space Weather and the Earth
The sun is able to disrupt weather here on Earth as well as in space, an event that NASA refers to as “space weather.” The sun is regularly “assaulting” the Earth with accelerated particles. A Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) is one of the biggest types of solar storms that can occur. During a CME, up to 100 million tons of material can be ejected, transfering energy to the Earth’s magnetic field. Not only can this disable satellites, but spacecraft walls can be penetrated by the CME particles. The exposure to energetic particles can become a health hazard for astronauts, particularly during space walks.
A geomagnetic storm can increase the density and energy of the particles in radiation belts, which makes it more likely that an astronaut will be hit by a particle. If this results in damage to the DNA of a cell, it could potentially lead to cancer. To combat this, the International Space Station has extra shielding for the crew and NASA closely monitors radiation exposure. NASA is also developing advanced predictive models so that astronauts have more reliable storm warnings.
Launching a Space Shuttle
Regardless of how prepared and technologically advanced NASA is, they still need weather to cooperate when it’s time to launch a space shuttle. The U.S. Air Force provides NASA with detailed weather patterns for several days leading up to a launch. In 2010, bad weather caused NASA to delay their launch. There had been a lot of rain in the area of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and a high chance of stormy weather. Bad weather also delayed the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket in 2017.
The Space Shuttle Challenger Accident
One of history’s most significant disasters was the Space Shuttle Challenger accident in January of 1986. Seventy-three seconds into the flight, the Challenger broke apart, marking the first NASA mission that resulted in casualties of American astronauts.
Leading up to the mission, there were several delays caused by weather. First, there was bad weather in Senegal at the emergency landing site. Then, the following day’s forecast looked to be bad as well. The launch was set for Monday, January 27, but the crosswinds at the landing facility were too high. The following day, which is when the launch occurred, was unseasonably cold for Florida – the temperature dipped as low as 22 degrees fahrenheit that day.
Ice formation became an issue, and even though the water pipes at the launch pad were drained to help, wind blew water onto the launch pad structures where it then froze. If there’s ice on a launch pad structure or tank, it could possibly break off and cause damage to the thermal protection tiles on the shuttle.
Tests show that O-rings aren’t as resilient as normal during lower temperatures, which means they’re not able to expand as well and seal the joint. The ice team was sent several times to assess the ice formation situation, and they measured a temperature of 9 degrees fahrenheit near the joint that ended up failing.
Climate Change and Space Travel
Is climate change responsible for the increase in hazardous weather and natural disasters? Over the last three decades, the Earth has grown successively warmer. There have been more global heat waves, which increases dehydration and heatstroke in individuals. This could lead to extreme water cycles, too, like drought and flooding, and flooding could lead to greater exposure to contaminated water. It also has led to an increase in traffic accidents.
If global warming has contributed to extreme weather on the ground, just consider what it’s doing in the atmosphere. Earth is experiencing higher levels of carbon dioxide, which then in turn contributes to global warming. This is being felt in space: the increased carbon dioxide is reducing the pull that the atmosphere has on satellites in space. In order for astronauts to travel safely, climate change must be addressed.
Safer Travel for Astronauts
Nasa’s GOLD mission strives to understand how space and the Earth interact in order to better protect astronauts and satellites. They already know that charged particles from the sun interact with the Earth’s magnetic fields and can cause problems with satellite communication. How weather events on Earth affect the upper atmosphere and space travel, though, are still not completely understood. GOLD will continue to learn more about the area in the atmosphere where the Earth’s weather meets space weather.