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Mission to return to the Moon in 2024, at risk from space weather

Space weather is unforgiving. The Artemis mission to send the first woman and the next man to the moon by 2024 could be in jeopardy due to solar storm forecasts, according to a new study developed by scientists at the University of Reading and published in the journal Solar Physics , They analyzed more than 150 years of space weather data to find patterns in the times of the most extreme events. These dramatic events, including solar storms and winds, are extremely dangerous to astronauts and satellites.

Solar storms that can harm or kill astronauts are more likely to occur at certain times in the solar cycle , a fact that must be taken into account when heading back to the Moon. The Sun goes through a cycle that lasts approximately 11 years during which there is a peak and then a pause in solar activity (something that is seen in the number of sunspots on its surface). Previously, the largest solar storms were thought to occur randomly and were not connected to this cycle, but with so many years of daily geomagnetic readings and statistical analysis techniques called the Monte Carlo method, we have a lot of data on this matter.

The researchers created a simulation of the Sun where extreme weather occurs randomly and another where it is most likely to occur at the peak of the solar cycle. They sampled the data from each model hundreds of thousands of times and checked how often these results occurred. They were able to calculate with 99% certainty that these solar storms were most likely to occur at the peak of the solar cycle, such as cycle 25 of the Sun that began in December 2019.

 

“It suggests that any significant space missions in the coming years, including astronauts returning to the Moon and then to Mars, will be less likely to encounter extreme space weather events during the first half of the solar cycle ,” says Mathew Owens. , spatial physicist and co-author of the work.

The team says their findings will help space weather forecasters make predictions of the next decade of the current solar cycle that has just begun.

“These big events can always surprise us, they are rare occurrences that can arise at any time, but they are more likely on some occasions than on others”, says the expert. “If you want to protect the health of your astronauts, there are definitely better times to go and worse times to go. There are stormy seasons and quiet seasons, but on a particular day you don’t know if you’re going to have a storm or not. “

The findings therefore suggest that any major operations planned beyond the next five years will have to take into account the increased likelihood of severe space weather at the end of the current solar cycle between 2026 and 2030.

This discovery could also help plan protection against solar flares on Earth, which can disrupt power grids and satellite communications, including GPS.

Referencia: Owens, M.J., Lockwood, M., Barnard, L.A. et al. Extreme Space-Weather Events and the Solar Cycle. Solar Physics 296, 82 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11207-021-01831-3

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