2 January 2014
You thought you could go out into your backyard, late at night, for a moment of peace — to escape the madness of modern life. Gazing at the stars, you begin to relax. Then, the peaceful night sky is disrupted by the rising of that magnet for controversy and strife: the Moon.
Once a mythic icon of the evening sky, for some, the Moon is, and has been, a focus of rivalries, disputes, suspicions, conspiracies, and hoaxes — as well as the objective of no less than two planned attacks. A few even suspect that the Moon, itself, is a cleverly contrived Trojan Horse.
Aside from its iconic status, the Moon doesn’t exactly occupy an exciting place in popular consciousness. Beyond its “15 minutes of fame” with the 1969 Moon landing, our satellite is, generally, a kind of large rock floating in space. There’s not much on the Moon and, aside from an occasional eclipse, the Moon really never does anything interesting.
However, the politicians of many governments, being much more . . . “insightful” . . . than the everyday people they are elected to serve, are fully aware of the urgent issues surrounding the Moon. After all, why reform the banking system, adopt and implement measures to relieve widespread economic suffering, or institute strong reforms to assure personal privacy when more urgent and important “lunar issues” may be “threatening our way of life.”
NASA SNUBS THE MOON
In 2009, the Moon’s fortunes waned when NASA suddenly lost interest in a promised return together with the planned establishment of a definite lunar base or outpost by 2020. Perhaps, familiarity breeds contempt, but the Moon, as a celestial body, lost its sparkle for the space agency. Now that our satellite is no longer a luminary of interest, NASA has turned its roving eye toward more exotic celestial bodies such as Mars and several asteroids. One way or another, the Moon lost its bid for its big 2020 comeback . . . or did it?
THE NATIONAL PARK ON THE MOON
The Moon may have lost its base, but may gain a National Park. The 2013 proposed legislation is called the “Apollo Lunar Landing Legacy Act.” Of course, a national park is cheaper to build than a base or outpost. Establish some paths, perimeter parking, a rest area or two, washrooms, and a few park rangers and you’ve got it. However, the passage of this Act will be no sail on the Sea of Tranquility. The Act’s stated intention is to protect the stuff the Apollo astronauts left on the Moon in the late sixties and early seventies, “from an onslaught of foreign and private visitors in the years and decades to come.”
However, the Act seems unnecessary in light of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Signed by over 100 nations, that treaty assures that all space objects remain the property of the nation that launched them. So, considering that the Apollo stuff is already protected, the proposed Act is supposed to add . . . what? An extra layer of protection against lunar thieves?
The Act, however, mentions not just abandoned gear, but also “lunar landing sites,” which are defined as “all areas of the Moon where astronauts and instruments . . . touched the lunar surface.” Questions have been raised as to whether this is intended to preserve the first lunar footprints. And this would be a problem.
The 1967 Treaty explicitly bars any claim of national sovereignty on lunar territory. This would include parks and even footprints. However, the proposed Act’s wording clearly “limits the park’s components to the NASA equipment itself.” So, we can put concerns about the violation of 1967 Treaty to rest?
Not so fast.
It seems that space lawyers (yes, there have been space lawyers for over 20 years now) have made some ominous statements “noting that the last three Apollo missions deployed lunar rovers that covered ‘significant amounts of real estate’” In other words, our astronauts have “touched” a lot “of the lunar surface.” Of course, that doesn’t mean anyone’s planning to violate the 1967 Treaty by making a claim to that territory. U.S. space lawyers are just “making a list” of the all that territory and “checking it twice.”
But, as you continue to read the Act, the other shoe drops. The “bill would also require that the U.S. apply to the United Nations for designation of the Apollo 11 landing site [as] a world heritage site.” What’s a “world heritage site?” Apparently, a phrase intended to describe the violation of the 1967 Treaty – and getting away with it. The Act’s mention of the U.N. application is hoped to elicit a “’warmer international reception.’”
But, of course, the Act is necessary — especially since the first visitors in over 40 years have just arrived on the Moon. Who knows what their rovers might be up to, alone, on the Moon with all that Apollo “gear?” Who knows what their rover’s “sticky fingers” might be picking up? But the problems with China go far beyond lunar larceny. Nailing down these lunar ownership issues is vital to preserve U.S. interests and to limit China’s lunar land grab.
THE CHINESE LUNAR LAND GRAB?
Yes, when China announced its plan to establish its first Moon base in the 2020’s, shock-waves rocked the world. Well, not quite. Shock-waves rocked the all too narrow world of a few politicians and federal agencies competing for U.S. tax dollars. The fear is that China will simply disregard the 1967 Treaty when it has maneuvered itself into “an optimum position to dictate Moon matters.” (That is a quote) After claiming important mineral rights, China may win the “Solar System Monopoly.” (Another quote)
And, once again, a self-occupied American public has been missing the Chinese lunar threat completely — distracted by petty concerns like economic survival, banking reform, protecting their personal privacy, and dealing with the effects of waging several ongoing, foreign wars. And, all the while, China may have been planning to boldly seize key lunar real estate rights! When will the American people learn?
RUSSIA REENTERS THE SPACE RACE
Perhaps the loss of U.S. interest and the threatened Chinese land-grab caused Russia’s interest in the Moon to suddenly reawaken with plans to send an unmanned probe to the Moon in 2015. The stated purpose of the probe is to pursue an exploration project on the Moon. Beaten by the U.S. in the manned space race, perhaps, Russia hopes to regain its place in space. Or, perhaps, China’s 2013 probe and Russian’s 2015 mission have another purpose. Perhaps, these missions are intended to investigate whether or not the U.S. really landed on the Moon at all.
DID THE UNITED STATES REALLY LAND ON THE MOON?
In recent years, a small but determined group of theorists assert that no manned mission has ever reached the Moon. The U.S., it is claimed, faked the 1969 Moon landing something like the events presented in a fictional novel and film, Capricorn One, in which NASA claims to have launched astronauts on a mission to Mars. In fact (or, rather, in fiction), the “astronauts” remain right here on Earth where they work on a sound-stage participating in the filming of a fake landing on the red planet.
The lunar landing skeptics are divided into two groups. One group believes that no manned mission has ever reached the Moon. All the Apollo missions, in which a landing was said to have occurred, were faked by filming the supposed lunar sojourn on a sound-stage and presenting the film to the world as a real series of events.
Another group of skeptics believes that the 1969 landing was faked, but subsequent missions were real. Apparently, NASA needed to spend fantastic amounts of time, energy, and money primarily to spread around false evidence to cover up the fact that there really had never been a Moon landing in 1969.
How many people believe this today? According to polls, about 20% of Americans (one in five) believe the U.S. never landed human beings on the Moon. In other countries, polls show skeptics number about 25% (one in four).
Of course, almost everyone should know that the U.S. actually did land on the Moon. Look at the evidence. The astronauts brought back rocks. Right?
Well, . . . one of those rocks was recently found to be a fake, and several others are of dubious authenticity. The latest fake was, in fact, a piece of petrified wood, which had been donated to the Dutch National Rijksmuseum by the estate of a former prime minister Willem Drees, Jr, The rock was given to Drees by the U.S. ambassador to The Netherlands, J. William Middendorf II, on the occasion of a state visit by the Apollo 11 Astronauts. After Drees death in 1988, the rock was donated to the Rijksmuseum, where it has remained.
In 2006, the date of the original gift, 1969, brought the authenticity of the rock into question. Apparently, Moon rocks were distributed as gifts to officials of many countries, but at a much later date. Tests revealed that the rock was, in fact, a piece of petrified wood.
When NASA was contacted for authentication, the space agency admitted that no one ever kept track of the Moon rocks. The number and whereabouts of most are unknown. In fact, no record was made of who received what, when, or where. The agency explained that continued Moon missions were anticipated. So, there would eventually be so many rocks that they would become valueless.
In fact, the rocks have become extremely valuable. One Moon rock went up for sale recently and was expected to bring about $340.000.00. But this only complicates the investigation. Who’s going to admit they got a fake Moon rock after paying $340.000 for it?
Leaving the Moon rock quagmire behind, we can look confidently to the original video footage of the Apollo landings on the Moon as absolute proof of those landings. That pristine video, unaltered, remains the greatest testament to the reality of our Moon landings. Right?
Well, all the original video tapes of all the Moon landings were accidentally erased. I’ll repeat that. All the original video tapes of all the landings, Apollo 11 through Apollo 17, were accidentally erased. But surely NASA still has their copies of the tapes of these historic events? No, there were no copies.
However, NASA obtained an old set of kinescoped news footage from CBS news. Kinescope was that old video tape used by the news media in the 1960’s and 70′s. Objects recorded with this type of tape tend to have washed-out shades of color. But, even if the quality was poor, these were originals — recorded directly from the feeds at the time of each of the actual Moon landings.
So, even after the destruction of every one of the original video tapes, we still had original, unaltered video of the lunar landings. These were the best proof that the U.S. landed on the Moon.
They were the best proof. As soon as NASA obtained the video tapes from CBS, the agency sent them to Hollywood and had them digitally altered. NASA said this was done to enhance the appearance of videos. Apparently, no one considered that digital enhancement of the pristine copies, by definition, adds something that wasn’t there before.
NASA officials were dismissive of what they called “conspiracy theorists reactions” to the digital alterations. Although NASA assures that the digital enhancement adds nothing more than some cosmetic details, the video evidence has become a bit of a weak spot in the argument for the authenticity of the Moon landings.
Still, so many of us watched the landing in 1969. Well, we didn’t see it, but we watched it on TV. Of course, it’s theoretically possible that it could have been a film. But, really, who could have done those special effects at that time? No one. Well, no one except Stanley Kubrick . . . who had just filmed 2001: A Space Odyssey . . . with NASA consulting . . . to assure the authenticity of the film’s special effects . . . .
I’m getting that sinking feeling . . . again.
KUBRICK FILMS A FAKE MOON LANDING?
Some believe that Director Stanley Kubrick produced the footage for, at least, the Apollo 11 (and maybe 12) Moon landing(s). As the story goes, Kubrick was recruited by the U.S. government shortly after his production of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
NASA had consulted during the making of the film, which featured scenes set on the Moon. To create the lunar scenes, Kubrick used, and continued to perfect, techniques for producing special effects including front screen projection to produce the appearance of an expansive lunar landscape on a sound-stage.
The tale of his collaboration goes like this. Kubrick produced the (faked) films of the landings on the lunar surface for, at most, two missions: Apollos 11 and 12. The launches and splashdowns were quite real. The astronauts simply orbited the Earth during the period of the supposed missions, while the world was shown cleverly faked footage intended to pull off what would be the biggest con of all time.
The theory never gained a lot of traction primarily because everyone, in a position to know, denied that Kubrick had done anything of the kind. In fact, there were significant problems with this theory from the start. For example, Kubrick’s lunar surface, in 2001, is really quite different from the landscape that appears in the “actual” photographs of the lunar landings.
However, the story was so intriguing and amusing that it inspired a mockumentary, The Dark Side of the Moon. A mockumentary is the presentation of fiction as if it were fact by maintaining the tone of a factual account.
In The Dark Side of the Moon, old interview clips of officials in the Nixon administration were cut and used, out of context, to give the impression that these officials were responding to questions about Kubrick’s participation in the filming of a faked Moon landing. Then, the makers sprinkled in scripted interviews with Kubrick’s friends and family who pretend to confirm the hoax. The film is quite an achievement. I watched, in disbelief, for about the first 10 minutes before I began to realize that something was “wrong.” It’s a good watch.
However, an unexpected second chapter was added to the story of the Kubrick Moon landing hoax theory when film aficionados suggested that Kubrick hinted at his participation in the filming of a fake Moon landing – not in a later interview, but in a later film.
Supposedly, wracked with guilt over his complicity in, perhaps, the greatest hoax of all time, Kubrick finally unburdened himself of his guilt by confessing, but not in so many words. Instead, he inserted clues in certain scenes and sequences of his later film, The Shining.
I watched Room 237 in which excerpts from the film, The Shining, are reviewed with voiceovers by several proponents of the theory, and . . . I just don’t see it. In one scene, I agree that Kubrick is, at least, spoofing 2001. However, I don’t see a suggestion of the filming of a fake Moon landing in the spoof. However, many film aficionados do and, perhaps, I’m not up to their level of acuity.
The reader is directed to the film, Room 237. But, again, I think these theorists “are stretching the long arm of” symbolic association “clear out of the socket.” But it’s a good watch.
I still think the U.S. landed on the Moon when and where NASA said. And, although the skeptics bring up some interesting questions, when they get to Stanley Kubrick as the creator of fake Moon landing footage . . . well, the “ice” of their argument “gets pretty thin.”
Maybe the most impressive thing about the idea that the Moon landings were faked is the number of people who believe it. Not only do one in five Americans (20%) doubt the reality of the Apollo Moon landings, but the numbers seem to be growing.
The skeptics do try to poke holes in the surviving evidence but, in the end, their strongest argument may be based on the lack of well preserved evidence. Before the reader lightly dismisses the power of lost and damaged evidence, consider this.
Let’s say both sides “went to court.” The skeptics manage to hire O.J. Simpson’s lawyers from the 1994 trial. Those lawyers, “The Dream Team,” would “shred” the surviving, badly preserved evidence in front of the jury. When the smoke cleared, the jury would probably conclude that the United States never even got into space, least of all to the Moon.
Moon landings aren’t taken to court, but a lack of record-keeping and badly preserved evidence might alter . . . “how we’ll remember it.” As things stand, the Moon landing skeptics are numerous and pushing for a historical “revision.”
BLOWING UP THE MOON
In, perhaps, the oddest chapter of the increasingly “lunar” story of the relationship between humanity and the Moon, a nuclear strike on our satellite was planned in 1959. Chronicled by Elizabeth Leafloor of Red Ice Creations, in “Gentlemen – Lets blow up the moon,” this surprisingly ill-starred plan gained considerable momentum in spite of its obvious dangers.
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I. World perception quickly shifted giving the Soviets the lead in the “space race.” U.S. leaders, stinging from the public perception that the Soviets were “ahead,” responded with an unexpected idea. Serious consideration was given to a plan to nuke the Moon as a way of demonstrating U.S. superiority — while the world watched the show.
One has to laugh (though nervously) at the thought of what led responsible U.S. military and political leaders to make this project choice. Apparently, information had passed from a trusted informant to the U.S. Secret Service and, then, to the U.S. government that the Soviets were already planning to nuke the Moon. The race was on. Now, even the slimmest possibility that the Soviet nuking would be bigger and better than the one being planned by the U.S. was unbearable to American leaders. And a simple nuking wouldn’t do. They wanted a large, highly visible explosion that could easily be seen by everyone on Earth.
Of course, this should be a cautionary tale about the unreliability of intelligence gathering and resulting cold-war hysteria. And it would be if the intelligence had been incorrect. However, the Soviet Union was planning to nuke the Moon. Their main planning focus? You guessed it. How to make the explosion so big that everyone on Earth would see it.
What saved the Moon? The U.S. feared a “negative public reaction.” At first, this reasoning seems only too obvious. The project managers knew that there was a substantial likelihood that the missile would miss the Moon. And, guess where it was almost certain go if it did “miss.” Back to Earth — where it might have fallen on Disneyland. Who knows?
U.S. leaders knew about the substantial danger of accidentally nuking the Earth by missing the Moon. But, strangely, this wasn’t considered as one of the sources of the “negative public reactions” about which military leaders were concerned.
The military feared (1) public condemnation on the basis of its failure to make the explosion look spectacular enough or (2) public condemnation over the “chance of radioactive material contaminating space.” Yeah, I bet every man, woman and child on Earth shivered in terror at the thought of radioactivity being left . . . in space. Forget the danger of the nuke falling to Earth and taking out Cleveland, we were all worried about radioactivity “contaminating” space.
NASA BATTERS THE MOON
Remember when NASA suddenly lost interest in a promised return to the Moon and nixed its plan for the establishment of a lunar base? Not content with the 2009 snub, NASA had to end the relationship with a few well-placed blows.
In what was called NASA’s kinetic lunar experiment, in 2009, the space agency steered two parts of the spacecraft LCROSS directly into the Moon as 9,000 kilometers per hour. Why? They were looking for water. Sure. That’s what I’d do if I was looking for water(?) The agency was probably just mad about something and knew the Moon wouldn’t complain. Anyway, NASA was expecting a large dust cloud, but none appeared. However, the agency reported some water was detected.
The most unexpected result of the kinetic impact was that the Moon was said to ring like a bell. This suggested that the Moon might be hollow. Indeed, there is a small group of people who believe that it is. However, there is an even a smaller group who believe that, not only is the Moon hollow, but someone might be living inside. But first questions, first.
IS THE MOON HOLLOW?
Some questions are on the cutting edge of science. The question of whether the Moon is hollow is, perhaps, past the cutting edge and a bit “out there.”
The idea that the Moon is hollow is strongly disputed by conventional science with the assertion that none of the data collected from any source supports the idea of a hollow Moon. Scientific authorities, also, assert that the Moon never rang. A statement by Neil Armstrong to that effect was the astronaut’s mistake. Armstrong, we are told, mistook a lunar earthquake for the vibrating aftereffects of the impact of the Apollo Lunar Module. Supposedly, the mistake was an easy one for a first time visitor, like Armstrong, because the lunar earthquakes feel quite different than those we experience on Earth.
There’s really little sophisticated evidence for the Hollow Moon theory beyond the disputed accounts of the Moon ringing in response to impacts and a recent observation suggesting that the sub lunar surface may be honeycombed with caverns.
In fairness, however, lunar exploration has been limited and, at this date, what we don’t know about the Moon far outweighs what we do. A lot more exploration is needed and the accumulation of a lot more evidence.
DID “SOMEONE” BUILD THE MOON?
Stranger, still, are the assertions that Moon is an unnatural body. Two members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Michael Vasin and Alexander Shcherbakov coauthored an article, in 1970, “Is the Moon the Creation of Alien Intelligence?” The article puts forward the theory that the Moon is a hollowed-out planetoid created by unknown beings with technology far superior to any on Earth.
Acceptance of a theory as fact, by the scientific community, is more a matter of probability than possibility. While the “Spaceship Moon” theory is possible . . . anything is possible. The evidence is too thin to give this theory much probability. In terms of scientific orthodoxy, the “Spaceship Moon” theory is far from the head of the list of favorites.
Viewed from a different angle, Vasin’s and Shchebakov’s evidence could, indeed, be interpreted to suggest the possibility that the Moon is an artificial construction. But this same evidence might also be used to support several completely different possibilities. So, why settle on the least likely of several possible theories – an artificial Moon?
Part of the problem with the “Spaceship Moon” theory is that there are so many facts missing with the most glaring questions about the “lunar construction” left unanswered: the who and why.
SO, WHO BUILT THE MOON?
You know what? I don’t know, and I don’t care. As far as I’m concerned, if the Moon is the product of intelligent design, I don’t want to know about it. And, I certainly don’t want to meet the builders.
Well, forget all that “Close Encounters” — sci-fi nonsense about alien visitation and really think about the possibilities. The return of the “Moon Builders” would present two really depressing scenarios.
First, this ingenious, alien race of amazing engineers and builders probably put the Moon here for a reason. No matter how you slice it, the purpose has to boil down to surveillance and control. Gee, where have we heard about those issues before? No controversy there. Huh?
The aliens return and introduce themselves. After we get over the initial excitement, one of the aliens will escape to Earth and blow the whistle on the “surveillance satellite” revealing that the Moon is maintaining an unselective surveillance of every man, woman, and child on Earth. Seeking asylum in some Latin American country, the alien whistle-blower will reveal that the Moon is not only watching and listening – the Moon is, literally, “recording everything.”
What happens next? The alien leader will try to frame the debate in terms of metadata sidestepping the issue of complete data collection as well as the persistently ignored, though credible, allegations that the aliens are using the collected data to blackmail almost everyone . . . .
You know the drill.
Second, the Moon may not be such an engineering marvel for our returning aliens. Suppose that, instead of being a “Death Star” type of construction project for these aliens, the Moon is something more like an iPhone. In other words, these aliens are giants. As a planet, we have enough on our plate right now. We don’t really want, or need, a visit from a bunch of humongous aliens.
MY PERSONAL OPINIONS AND CONCLUSIONS:
(1) The 1967 Outer Space Treaty seems more than adequate protection for the Apollo gear from visiting lunar thieves. China’s there now, and Russia plans to visit the Moon next year. If anything turns up missing, there will only be two suspects: the Chinese and Russians. And everyone knows where they live.
(2) China can dictate lunar policy if it wants to. Who cares? I can dictate lunar policy if I want to. No one would listen to me, but why would anyone listen to the Chinese either?
(3) I believe the U.S. really did land on the Moon — when and where and as often as the U.S. government says. Why do a lot of people think otherwise? Because the United States government has . . . ah . . . kept so many secrets and . . . ah . . . been “less than forthcoming” about so many other things that, now, everything it says it’s done, or not done, is up for grabs.
(4) If the Moon is hollow, I doubt that there’s anything interesting inside. After all, it’s a rock, not a box of Crackerjacks. I don’t believe anyone built the Moon unless the builders are members of the most unimaginative alien race in the galaxy and have way too much time on their hands.
I suspect that the Moon is just a big rock floating in space, as blissfully tranquil as its “sea” of the same name. Little could that orb realize the focus of interest and activity it attracts from Earth, at least, among our “lunar-minded” politicians, economists, and scientists – all of whom can focus, narrowly, on this distant rock, while carefully avoiding even a glance at the truly glaring and urgent issues all around them right here on Earth.
2 January 2014
THURSDAY: Solar Flares & CME’s — Who Loves the Sun?
12 September 2013
Love the Sun? It’s easy on a mildly warm spring day. Flowers are in bloom, and children play. The warm sunshine lightly caresses your face. However, if you’re an astronaut or it’s your job to protect the integrity of our electrical grid, you know there’s another side to the Sun: the Sun’s dark side. Well, not really dark. The Sun’s always light, but you get the idea.
In fact, it’s just when the Sun is at its very brightest — when it flares — that it’s most dangerous. Cheerful light-giver or flaring disrupter, the Sun’s disposition not only changes like the weather, the changes are called the “weather.” But the Sun’s weather is referred to as “space weather” because its powerful effects dominate the entire Solar System — the planets and the space in between.
The solar wind is the constant out-flowing of charged particles from the Sun into space. When this wind strikes the earth’s magnetic field, it produces auroras visible at the poles. At the North Pole, this aurora is known as the northern lights. But the Sun has more than “wind,” it also has its own version of lightning — solar flares.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back into space . . .
The Sun’s weather goes through eleven-year cycles marked by increases and decreases in the number of sunspots. These “spots” are slightly darker and cooler areas on the surface of the Sun, which are created by magnetic forces beneath the Sun’s surface. Sunspots are like caps trapping a lot of pent-up energy below the surface. Although the exact mechanics of solar flares is still a mystery, when the trapped energy reaches a certain level, it bursts out of the Sun in the form of a solar flare. Invisible from the surface of the earth, a solar flare’s signature is only detectible using telescopes operating outside the earth’s atmosphere — in space.
On the good side, these flares actually have little effect on those of us with the good sense to stay out of space. The earth’s atmosphere shields us from almost all the effects of solar flares. At their worst, X-class flares affect the earth’s upper atmosphere and can cause radio blackouts for short periods of time. But the earth’s atmosphere is no protection if you’re in space. So, if you’re an astronaut, gadding about in the heavens, these flares are big trouble.
With solar flares, the Sun ejects radiation powerful enough to pass through the outer shell of a spacecraft, a spacesuit, and the human being inside. In space, exposure to a solar flare is fatal. Again, the typical spacesuit and spacecraft provide no protection for the unlucky astronaut caught in the radiation from one of these flares.
So, how did our astronauts survive the missions to the Moon? With careful timing. Although the timing of any particular solar flare can’t be predicted, there are rather definite cycles of rest and activity. Our lunar missions were carefully timed to coincide with periods of low activity. Still, one of the greatest known, but least publicized, risks of a trip to the Moon was an unexpected solar flare.
Why so little publicity? I would guess that attention tends to focus on factors that human effort can influence or control. With solar flares, silent hope may be the most natural response to a possible event so firmly and completely in the hands of fate.
Novelist James A. Michener wrote “Space,” a fictionalized account of the history of the U.S. space program from the end of World War II through the Apollo landings on the Moon. The book ends with a fictional tragedy in which risky timing of a Moon mission results in the deaths of two astronauts from exposure to a solar flare.
Needless to say, this doesn’t bode well for those hoping to colonize the earth’s lifeless and barren satellite — the Moon. Of course, solar flares can be ducked and dodged. Colonists would have a bit of warning. We can detect solar flares as they leave the Sun. After detection, there would be about 8 minutes for colonists or astronauts to receive the warning and take substantial cover.
The perils of space travel aside, most of us can breathe a sigh of relief when it comes to solar flares. As long as we stay out of space, we’ll be ok. I don’t know about you, but I can handle a life without extensive space travel. And the Moon is not my idea of a garden spot for a vacation. So, I doubt I’ll ever be living there.
Unfortunately, the Sun ejects something worse than flares — something less like a wind, and more like an ocean tsunami. Coronal Mass Ejections, CME’s, are the worst of the worst. On the earth’s surface, we can avoid the flares, but not these waves. Still, a CME could come and go and, if you were asleep in your hammock, you might not even know it.
Sunspots are held in place by magnetic fields, which occasionally collapse, or break, releasing a blast of plasma from the Sun’s surface — a CME. These leave the Sun at about 7 million miles per hour. They are not infrequent, but the sun throws off CME’s in any and all directions. The earth is a small target. So, very, very few of the many CME’s strike the earth.
When a wave of highly charged particles does strike the earth, it extends the earth’s magnetic field stretching it farther and farther until the field snaps-back. This “snap-back” discharges an extremely large amount of electrical energy into the earth’s atmosphere. Then, the stretch and snap-back action is repeated — again and again. As the process continues, the earth’s atmosphere becomes saturated with electrical potential.
The highly charged atmosphere produced by a CME comes and goes far too quickly to affect human health. The same atmosphere that picks up the electrical charge, also, protects human beings from the directly harmful physical effects of CME’s. But without the protection of the earth’s atmosphere, astronauts and hypothetical lunar colonists would suffer swiftly fatal injuries from a CME — just as they would from a solar flare. Spacecraft shells and spacesuits offer as little protection from CME’s as they do from solar flares.
However, CME’s move more slowly. Our astronauts or lunar colonists could have between one and five days advance warning of a CME’s arrival. Like a jellyfish alert at the seashore, the warning could go up with some time to spare. Just as swimmers can stay out of the sea to avoid jellyfish stings, so astronauts or lunar colonists could take substantial shelter until the radiation from a CME subsided.
So, why are CME’s so much worse than solar flares? While CME’s are relatively harmless to human beings in the earth’s atmosphere, these waves can be the kiss of death to electrical transformers and sensitive electrical equipment.
Although high-magnitude CME’s are rare, these can create an intense electromagnetic charge in the earth’s atmosphere, which could damage sensitive electronic equipment. However, the greatest potential danger is to the electrical transformers and electrical transmission lines that form our electric power grid. In other words, without prompt defensive action, a powerful CME could potentially destroy our power grid or, at least, trigger prolonged blackouts.
Today, the potential dangers from CME’s are understood. With one to five days advance warning, serious damage to the equipment used to supply our electric power could easily be avoided by shutting down the entire grid. Not that such a shutdown wouldn’t be disruptive, but disruption is better than disaster.
Without a shutdown, the electrically charged atmosphere produced by a high-magnitude CME could induce a tremendous increase in the electrical load on power transformers and the entire power grid. With the power grid in North America operating at about capacity, a sudden and enormous increase in electrical load could cause power lines to sag or even snap. Transformers would blowout and massive blackouts would affect much of North America.
At the same time, a powerful CME would cause magnetic turbulence that would interfere with radio signals, electronic communications, and satellites causing temporary communication failures. GPS signals could be disrupted. Long metal structures, like pipes, could pick up and carry electrical currents with a variety of unintended and unfortunate results.
Without a prior shutdown, the damage could take a month or more to repair. Emergency services would have to operate with limited electric power and possibly damaged communication equipment. Cell phones or computers might not be directly affected, but the communication infrastructure, including cell relay towers and internet services, might be disabled making much of our communication technology useless.
However, before we become survivalists, stocking canned goods in our cellar in anticipation of the next CME, there is some good news to keep in mind. No expensive equipment or years of upgrading are necessary to protect our power grid — just a prompt and complete shutdown. Another piece of good news is that a high magnitude CME, one that could do the damage described above, only strikes the earth about once every 500 years.
Of course, some have suggested fantastically expensive and complicated accommodations to shield our ever-changing and growing electrical grid systems. However, most of these accommodations are less than necessary. With one to five days advanced warning, a complete shutdown is relatively simple to implement.
But what about exposed communication equipment such as satellites and our communication infrastructure — those electronics that can’t be shutdown? Some of these devices are of vital importance to emergency services. Here is where special shielding, though expensive, would do a great deal of good. Communication breakdowns can have extremely serious consequences, and a good portion of our communication infrastructure can’t be shutdown. Another substantial portion is composed of delicate electronics that could be damaged even when powered-down.
Again, the study of Greenland ice cores reveals that a super CME — ones that could cause the extensive damage — only strikes the earth about once in 500 years. However, the ice cores also reveal that smaller events, more disruptive than destructive, happen several times a century.
During the 20th Century, three significant CME’s struck the earth: One in 1921 and a second in 1960, which produced reports of widespread radio disruption. However, we can get the most contemporary picture of the effects of a CME from the third event, which significantly disrupted Quebec, Canada’s electrical power grid in March of 1989.
A CME left the Sun’s surface on March 6, 1989. Three and a half days later, on March 9, intense auroras formed at the poles and could be seen as far south as Texas and Florida — these were the first signs that a severe geomagnetic storm had struck the earth.
The CME caused short-wave radio interference. Signals from Radio Free Europe into Russia were disrupted. Suspicions that the Soviet government had jammed the signal triggered Cold War fears of an impending nuclear strike.
By midnight, communications from a weather satellite were interrupted. Another communication satellite, TDRS-1, recorded over 250 anomalies caused by the increased particles flowing into the satellite’s own electronics. The space shuttle Discovery, on a mission, experienced an unusually high reading from a pressure sensor on one of its fuel cells. The anomalous reading disappeared after the geomagnetic storm ended.
Quebec, Canada rests on a large layer of rock, which acted as shield against the natural discharge of the electricity from the highly charged atmosphere to the ground. Without discharge into the ground, the powerful atmospheric electrical potential found its path of least resistance along utility transmission lines. Circuit breakers on Hydro-Québec’s power grid were tripped, and Quebec’s James Bay network experienced a 9-hour power failure.
Today, geomagnetic storms and solar flares are monitored from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) satellite, a joint project of NASA and the European Space Agency. Currently, standards are being developed for utilities including the required installation of protective equipment and the establishment of emergency procedures to deal with future CME’s. Also, special protocols are being developed for nuclear power facilities to assure core shutdowns in case of a high-magnitude CME event.
But once we know that odds of a big CME — one every 500 years — the next question is: How long has it been since the last “big one?”
The granddaddy of them all happened on September 1, 1859. The “Carrington Event,” began when an amateur astronomer, Richard Carrington, observed the Sun suddenly grow larger and brighter. What he couldn’t have known, at the time, was that the Sun’s size and brightness only appeared to change. A CME, in the form of a circular cloud was expanding out from the Sun. This “halo coronal mass ejection,” was so bright and emitted so much light that the Sun appeared to grow in both size and brightness. Carrington, also, couldn’t have known why the “halo” cloud appeared to be almost perfectly circular. That apparent shape indicated that the CME was headed right for the earth.
Electrical equipment was relatively rare in 1859, but telegraph pylons threw sparks. Some telegraph operators were shocked by their equipment even after disconnection from their power supply. Other telegraph operators reported sending and receiving signals without external power — the equipment powered only by the electricity in the atmosphere. Magnetic instruments, as simple as a compass, wouldn’t give consistent readings.
Auroras, like the northern lights, which are seldom visible beyond the artic circle, could be seen in the tropics. The northern lights were so bright in the Rockies that the glow was mistaken for sunrise by gold miners, who got up and started breakfast. In the northeastern U.S., people could read newspapers in the middle of the night by the light of the aurora. The Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser waxed lyrical reporting, “The light was greater than that of the Moon at its full, but had an indescribable softness and delicacy that seemed to envelop everything upon which it rested.”
This happened 154 year ago. So, if it’s once every 500 years . . . . Well, we’re still on the right side of the odds.