Taking the Red Planet by storm

Bold discoveries may prepare the world for the first Martian colony

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The weather in space might not be at the top of your list of concerns. Would it really affect your commute to work or your weekend plans?

It might if you live on Mars. And that possibility could be sooner than you think.

Scientists believe the first colony will arrive as soon as 2028, right before the peak of a space storm. The dangers of space weather must be addressed before NASA’s vision for a Mars colony can become a reality. Safe houses with 30-foot thick walls will need to be constructed to protect the colonists from deadly exposure to radiation during the storms, which cycle every 11 years. The waves linger for approximately three years before subsiding.

During a space storm, gusts of X-rays and particle rays emitted from solar flares and coronal mass ejections—or clumps of high-energy particles belched by the sun—hit the red planet at full force. The barely existent magnetic field and a weak atmosphere offer no protection. 

Earth’s much stronger magnetic field and atmosphere is also susceptible to the effects of space weather.

“When this wave of particles comes it can be so intense that it actually bends the Earth’s magnetic field way beyond where it naturally belongs to a point where the magnetic field lines nearly cross. When they bend that much everything snaps and you get this huge deposit of charge at the poles that goes all the way to the equator,” says Roger Dube, professor in the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science. 

The charge is seen in the ribbons of light known as the aurora borealis and carries the potential for creating havoc on Earth. The same high-energy particles can cripple the power grid by inducing currents into an already stressed network. The particles can also expose airplane passengers to radiation. The Space Radiation Analysis Group at Johnson Space Center in Houston, in conjunction with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, regularly issue alerts to power suppliers and commercial airline carriers within 30 to 60 minutes of a storm.

Dube thinks a better monitoring system could provide at least three days advanced warning. He recently secured NASA funding to develop an early warning system to forecast space storms headed toward Mars and an “all-clear” detector to let colonists know the danger has passed. Likewise, the technology will provide warning of potential surges in the power grid on Earth or damage to GPS navigation and sensitive communication satellites caused by the storms.

The system Dube envisions includes sensors and small solar observatories at the colony or near the planetary pole for continual view of the solar surface. Special purpose satellites already positioned between the sun and the Earth will require advanced sensors and algorithms to detect signs of a dangerous flux of particles.

“The technology we’re building uses existing satellites and solar telescopes that are in orbit or in space,” Dube says. “Our innovation will be to add artificial intelligence to the recognition of space storms. Initially the technology will be used to calculate the probability of the Earth being hit by a space weather storm, and once we’ve got that we’ll determine the orbital calculations for Mars.”

Dube’s team includes imaging science graduate student Santosh Suresh. His work visualizes data downloaded from three radio frequency receivers tuned to the ionosphere—the slice of the earth’s atmosphere made up of a molecule-rich plasma charged by solar radiation. The antennae—attached to the Center for Microelectronics and Computer Engineering Building, the RIT Inn & Conference Center and the RIT Racquet Club—essentially function as a space weather station. 

Also working on the project is Chance Glenn, associate dean of graduate studies and professor in the College of Applied Science and Technology, and Kevin Miller, a graduate student in computer science, who, along with Suresh, are exploring different algorithms for synthesizing and
 analyzing data. Drs. Mary Agavis and Shivagu Deori from Rochester General Health System are providing input on acceptable levels of radiation exposure. 

“We’ve got different types of data from different sources, such as images that show the coronal mass ejections,” Dube says. “We’ve got satellites orbiting between the sun and the earth monitoring the particle flux, and we have historical records that take us back in time that tell us what things looked like in the past. We’re looking to correlate all of these things together to see if there is a predictor that says, ‘Here comes a storm.’ ”