The Sun's Oddly Calm Behavior May Trigger a Record-Setting 'Ice Age' in Space

Wednesday, 14 November 2018 - 1:53PM
Space
Sun
Earth
Wednesday, 14 November 2018 - 1:53PM
The Sun's Oddly Calm Behavior May Trigger a Record-Setting 'Ice Age' in Space
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Composite from Pixabay
Sunspots and solar radiation are a part of life, whether we're aware of them or not. Like the changing of the seasons, the Sun goes through 11-year cycles of activity and inactivity when it comes to magnetic disturbances on its surface, but this year it's been oddly quiet. So quiet, in fact, that part of the Earth upper atmosphere, the thermosphere, is undergoing a huge temperature drop. According to Martin Mlynczak of NASA's Langley Research Center, "We see a cooling trend. High above Earth's surface, near the edge of space, our atmosphere is losing heat energy. If current trends continue, it could soon set a Space Age record for cold."

Drops in temperature and shrinkage in the thermosphere's layer of air are part of the solar cycle, culminating in a point called the Solar Minimum, where radiation levels from the Sun reach their lowest point. We're reaching that point in the cycle, but it's even calmer than usual, leading to below-average temperatures and large contractions in the thermosphere's thickness. The data comes from the SABER instrument, mounted on NASA's TIMED satellite. SABER is designed to pick up on changes in the thermosphere's carbon dioxide and nitric oxide, two gases that can be used to index the energy balance in that layer of the atmosphere.

Though the cold temperatures and shrinkage in the thermosphere won't noticeably affect the Earth's climate, it will have an effect on satellites orbiting the planet. With decreased drag from the thermosphere, satellites' lifespans will be boosted a little, while the orbits of space junk will also be extended.

Having a quiet, less active Sun isn't a bad thing, especially when you consider that a solar flare in 1972 was powerful enough to set off sea mines off the coast of Vietnam, or that a repeat of the infamous 1859 Carrington Event could bring about a genuine crisis for our tech-based society.
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