An Earth-Sized Space Shield to Protect Us From Solar Storms Is Less Crazy Than It Sounds
Every 100 years or so, our Sun gives off a great big belch that sends an intense wave of charged particles towards Earth. This wasn’t a problem in the past, but our high-tech civilization is now disturbingly vulnerable to these solar storms. A new study quantifies the economic risks posed by these extreme solar storms, while also proposing a super-futuristic solution to the problem: an Earth-sized shield built in outer space.
The term “solar storm” is used to identify the various nasties the Sun can hurl our way, including x-rays, charged particles, and magnetized plasma. In 1859, a series of powerful coronal mass ejections (CMEs) hit our planet head on, disrupting telegraph stations and causing widespread communication outages. If we were to be hit by an equally powerful solar storm today, it would knock out satellites and electrical grids, disrupting global communications, transportation, and supply chains. Total worldwide losses could reach up to $10 trillion, with recovery taking many years.
A Monster Solar Storm Could Cost the US $40 Billion Daily
Our planet is due to be hit with a powerful solar storm, an event that happens about once every…
We have no idea when the next Carrington-like event will occur, but a 2012 paper proposed a 10 percent chance of one happening in the next decade. Indeed, like an earthquake-prone city built above a pair of conflicting fault lines, it’s only a matter of time before our planet is hit by the next Big One. And to make matters worse, we’re becoming increasingly vulnerable to these events owing to steady technological advances.
A new paper by Manasvi Lingam and Avi Loeb from Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics is the first to consider the economic impacts of a sizeable solar storm in the future, when our reliance on technology is far greater than it is today. In addition, the authors propose a strategy to mitigate the effects—and they’re not thinking small. Lingam and Loeb say we should construct a massive shield in space, and that the costs would be far lower than having to deal with the aftermath of a solar storm. The researchers go on to argue that advanced extraterrestrial civilizations have likely done this already, and that we should search for these shields as a way to detect aliens.
The new paper is currently being considered for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
To help them with their economic model, Lingam and Loeb factored in two important assumptions. First, the longer the duration between powerful solar flares, the more powerful they will be. Second, our civilization will experience exponential growths in technology and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the coming decades.
“We predict that within about 150 years, there will be an event that causes damage comparable to the current United States’ GDP of approximately $20 trillion, and the damage will increase exponentially at later times until technological development will saturate [i.e. when technological development finally starts to slow down and be globally distributed],” Loeb told Gizmodo. “Such a forecast was never attempted before.”
With these potentially catastrophic losses in mind, Lingam and Loeb turn to potential solutions. Unsurprisingly, the proposed mitigation strategies aren’t subtle, but of the three solutions considered, only one was deemed viable by the researchers.
“[Some] shielding solutions rely on placing physical object(s) between the Earth and the Sun. This would not work since the mass will be tremendous and can block the sunlight,” Lingam told Gizmodo. “Similarly, one can use electrical fields instead of magnetic fields. However, the problem is that the electrical field will repel positive particles but will attract the negative particles. Hence, we suggest that magnetic shielding is relatively the most viable.”
This Earth-sized “magnetic deflector” would be placed at the Lagrange L1 point between the Earth and the Sun at a distance of about 205,000 miles (329,000 km) from our planet’s surface. It would act as a current loop, and deflect the sun’s harmful particles back into space. The researchers say the required amount of deflective force is relatively small, and that we already have much of the technology required to make this possible. The big challenge, they say, will be to scale it up to its superstructural size.
“The related engineering project could take a few decades to construct in space,” said Loeb. “The cost for lifting the needed infrastructure to space (weighing 100,000 tons) will likely [cost around] hundreds of billions of dollars, much less than the expected [solar storm] damage over a century.”