The effects of the solar wind on the Earth

The solar wind is a continuous stream of particles, mainly very energetic protons and electrons that come from the most superficial layer of the Sun the corona. These particles travel at a speed that varies between 400 and 900 kilometres per second (248 to 560 miles per second), affecting all the solar system’s bodies.

NASA has sent diverse robotic missions to the Sun with the goal of precisely studying the characteristics and behaviour of the solar wind, as well as other processes that take place on the solar surface. Among these missions stands out the Parker probe, the most recent of all, sent in 2018, which plans to approach at only 6.16 kilometres (about 4 miles) from the Sun’s surface. This probe will gather lots of information about solar wind.

The northern lights

One of the most attractive effects of the solar wind on our planet is the phenomenon of the northern lights, or southern lights if they take place in the southern hemisphere. These light shows mainly take place in the regions near the poles.

However, if the speed of the solar wind is high enough, the produced geomagnetic storms can lead to the formation of auroras at closer latitudes to the equator than is possible in normal conditions.

Problems in space

Even if the solar wind creates incredible light shows, it can also have harmful effects on the satellites and astronauts that are in space.

Indeed, the highly energetic particles that form the solar wind, which in some cases can travel at enormous speeds, can cause serious damage to the satellites or the International Space Station (ISS), and, in this case, endanger the life of the astronauts inside it.

For example, in February 2022, a significant emission of solar wind that arrived on the Earth made SpaceX lose about 40 Starlink satellites, worth more than 50 million dollars.

Moreover, the solar wind and all the highly energetic particles that form it can also cause serious health problems to the astronauts. It is for this reason that in periods of high quantity of solar wind the astronauts of the ISS seek shelter in a well-protected zone, and all spacewalks are paused.

So, it is important to study in more detail the effects of the solar wind, to be able to mitigate the damages that it provokes to the astronauts’ health, and better protect the equipment that we send to space.

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