There Goes the Sun?

In last week's column, as an afterthought, I mentioned the unprecedented solar activity of the last few days.

It seems to be continuing, and may end up being the largest solar flare ever recorded.

Of course, this may not mean much, because it's only in the past couple decades that we could seriously study the sun, and it's been burning for billions of years. Such events remind us that while we've learned a great deal about solar physics, there remains much that we don't understand. We've had such a short time during which to study it, we may be mislead into thinking that what we've seen in our own brief lifetimes is indicative of longer-term behavior, when in fact it may have been much hotter, or cooler than normal during what, in geological terms, is a snapshot.

There are several implications of our lack of understanding of these phenomena.

First, as I noted last week, this is a matter of great concern to planners of deep space missions because, beyond the protection of earth's magnetic field, such solar storms could result in a heavy dose of radiation to any space travelers in transit. It could even be fatal, either quickly, or in a more long, drawn out sickness, incapacitating the crew. A better understanding of the potential hazard, and even more importantly, the ability to predict it, would make it much easier and more cost effective to come up with techniques to shield spacecraft against it.

There are implications for non-space travelers as well. After all, if the sun can vary this much, how do we know how much of "global warming" is caused by such variation, and how much by human activity? Given the societal cost that might be incurred by overreactions such as the Kyoto Treaty, it would behoove us to attempt to better understand (and if possible, predict) the effects of variations in solar activity on the global environment.

Finally, while it's unlikely that anything will change in the near term, there is no guarantee that our sun will continue to burn in the moderate range in which life evolved on earth, and in fact, we know from observing other stars that they have life cycles. At some point, it will become first too hot, and then too cold to allow life to be sustained on earth, and perhaps in the solar system itself.

There's an old joke about a man, nodding off during an astronomy lecture, who suddenly jerks awake and asks, "Did you say the sun would burn out in a million years?!" No, the lecturer, explains, it was a billion years. "Well," he replies, "that's a relief."

Million or billion, it's going to happen sometime, and the problem is, we can't be sure that some dire solar event won't occur much sooner than that. It might not wipe out life on earth, but it could make it very unpleasant for humans. This possibility, along with the continuing danger of being hit by a random celestial object and sharing the fate of the dinosaurs, is one of the most powerful arguments for us becoming seriously spacefaring as soon as possible--to get at least some of humanity's precious eggs out of a single fragile basket.

In light of all this, it's somewhat disturbing that Congress is considering deleting the budget for the space weather center at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency.

Given the raging solar storm over the past several days, the squabble seems absurd. The agency request is $8 million, the House is offering $5 million, and the Senate proposes that it be funded by the Air Force, but doesn't allocate any funding for it.

It's particularly disturbing when considering the sums involved--a few million dollars, an infinitesimal fraction of even NOAA's budget, let alone the federal budget, needed in order to continue to forecast events that, even ignoring the longer term issues discussed above, can have profound immediate effects on billion-dollar telecom industries, and navigation and remote sensing for much of the world. Of course, it's not necessarily unreasonable for the Air Force to pay for it, because they have as many critical satellites as anyone, and as much of a need.

But consider that perhaps there's another possibility. From the article, we see this quote:

"What would we do without this data? We couldn't live without it," said Robert Hedinger, executive vice president at Loral Skynet, which operates a constellation of Earth orbiting satellites that services much of the nation's cable television programming and corporate communications.

Now, as it happens, Loral is in bankruptcy, but the industry as a whole is one with many billions of dollars of revenue. If, like Loral, they are also unable to "live without it," if it's truly a necessary cost of doing business, surely a consortium of some kind could be set up to fund the center, so that the actual beneficiaries were paying for it rather than the taxpayer.

There might be a free rider problem, of course--some might get the information who didn't pay for it, but there are ways to handle this. It could in fact be funded by subscription--those who really needed the data would get the most timely reports, for a fee. NASA and the Air Force could be subscribers themselves. Of course, industry will no doubt take umbrage at such a proposal, being used to getting the taxpayers to subsidize something that they consider vital, but it seems to me that there's a potential market opportunity, should anyone at NOAA prove to be entrepreneurial.

Of course, some may ask, if space weather can be privatized, why can't terrestrial weather, which is of much more value to many people on the planet, and is offered on commercial venues, such as local television stations and newspapers, be fully privatized as well?

To which my response is...good question.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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