Written by By Marie Simoneaux, CNN New York
Astronomers have known for decades that naturally occurring solar storms can affect structures deep within the Earth, such as the aurora borealis.
But new findings from researchers at the University of California Berkeley’s Space Science and Engineering Laboratory show that the space storm erupting from the sun can also affect how small particles infiltrate those structures deep inside the Earth.
The study, published Friday in the journal Nature, used super-computer simulations to observe interactions between the origin of the electromagnetic energy and the material in the Earth’s upper layers.
“This tells us that particles of sulfur and nitrogen that come in from the sun, in addition to creating our stunning sunsets, can affect what happens to the Earth below,” Laura Knudsen, the study’s lead author, said in a statement.
Unlike solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which mostly target the upper regions of the Earth’s atmosphere, these low-energy solar storms strike farther down on the planet’s surface.
What this means for earth-based satellites that often communicate with other systems on the ground — like those that perform seismic and temperature readings — is that they may experience a temporary loss of service.
The process of altering the lower material of the Earth isn’t immediate, but once the particles pass through the planet’s crust, they stay for a while, according to the research.
Astronomers are still determining how long those particles last, according to Knudsen.
“The amazing thing about this kind of research is that it will allow us to see what happens to these particles over time, instead of only detecting changes in the past,” she said.
Additionally, the study shows that a hyperbaric oxygen chamber in Washington, which is powered by the aurora — the showy display of Earth’s Northern and Southern Lights in the Earth’s upper atmosphere — could be subject to solar storm anomalies that disrupt radio communications and create severe aurora displays.
When this happens, according to the research, instruments can become unresponsive and either shut down or are severely degraded, meaning even the lower-level spacecraft studying these effects could be exposed to dangerous technical problems or electromagnetic issues.
To protect against future solar storms, the space research team said they recommend that astronauts use ion chambers to store the charging current from ionized particles while in space, while implanting special channels into the Earth’s magnetic field to collect these electrical energy-producing particles.