New study proposes a giant, space-based solar flare shield for earth

New study proposes a giant, space-based solar flare shield for earth
A new study by a team from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) proposes using a magnetic shield to protect Earth from solar flare activity. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

In today's modern, fast-paced world, human activity is very much reliant on electrical infrastructure. If the power grids go down, our climate control systems will shut off, our computers will die, and all electronic forms of commerce and communication will cease. But in addition to that, human activity in the 21st century is also becoming increasingly dependent upon the infrastructure located in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

Aside from the many telecommunications satellites that are currently in space, there's also the International Space Station and a fleet of GPS satellites. It is for this reason that solar flare activity is considered a serious hazard, and mitigation of it a priority. Looking to address that, a team of scientists from Harvard University recently released a study that proposes a bold solution – placing a giant magnetic shield in orbit.

The study – which was the work of Doctor Manasavi Lingam and Professor Abraham Loeb from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysicist (CfA) – recently appeared online under the title "Impact and Mitigation Strategy for Future Solar Flares". As they explain, pose a particularly grave risk in today's world, and will become an even greater threat due to humanity's growing presence in LEO.

Solar flares have been a going concern for over 150 years, ever since the famous Carrington Event of 1859. Since that time, a great deal of effort has been dedicated to the study of solar flares from both a theoretical and observational standpoint. And thanks to the advances that have been made in the past 200 years in terms of astronomy and space exploration, much has been learned about the phenomena known as "space weather".

At the same time, humanity's increased reliance on electricity and space-based infrastructure have also made us more vulnerable to extreme space weather events. In fact, if the Carrington event were to take place today, it is estimated that it would cause global damage to electric power grids, satellites communications, and global supply chains.

The cumulative worldwide economic losses, according to a 2009 report by the Space Studies Board ("Severe Space Weather Events–Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts"), would be $10 trillion, and recovery would take several years. And yet, as Professor Loeb explained to Universe Today via email, this threat from space has received far less attention than other possible threats.

"In terms of risk from the sky, most of the attention in the past was dedicated to asteroids," said Loeb. "They killed the dinosaurs and their physical impact in the past was the same as it will be in the future, unless their orbits are deflected. However, solar flares have little biological impact and their main impact is on technology. But a century ago, there was not much technological infrastructure around, and technology is growing exponentially. Therefore, the damage is highly asymmetric between the past and future."

To address this, Lingham and Loeb developed a simple mathematical model to assess the economic losses caused by over time. This model considered the increasing risk of damage to technological infrastructure based on two factors. For one, they considered the fact that the energy of a solar flares increases with time, then coupled this with the exponential growth of technology and GDP.

New study proposes a giant, space-based solar flare shield for earth
Artist’s concept of a large asteroid passing by the Earth-Moon system. Credit: A combination of ESO/NASA images courtesy of Jason Major/Lights in the Dark.

What they determined was that on longer time scales, the rare types of solar flares that are very powerful become much more likely. Coupled with humanity's growing presence and dependence on spacecraft and satellites in LEO, this will add up to a dangerous conjunction somewhere down the road. Or as Loeb explained:

"We predict that within ~150 years, there will be an event that causes damage comparable to the current US GDP of ~20 trillion dollars, and the damage will increase exponentially at later times until technological development will saturate. Such a forecast was never attempted before. We also suggest a novel idea for how to reduce the damage from energetic particles by a magnetic shield. This was my idea and was not proposed before."

To address this growing risk, Lingham and Loeb also considered the possibility of placing a magnetic shield between Earth and the sun. This shield would be placed at the Earth-sun Lagrange Point 1, where it would be able to deflect charged particles and create an artificial bowshock around Earth. In this sense, this shield would protect Earth's in a way that is similar to what its magnetic field already does, but to greater effect.

Based on their assessment, Lingham and Loeb indicate that such a shield is technically feasible in terms of its basic physical parameters. They were also able to provide a rudimentary timeline for the construction of this shield, not to mention some rough cost assessments. As Loeb indicated, such a shield could be built before this century is over, and at a fraction of the cost of what would be incurred from solar flare damage.

New study proposes a giant, space-based solar flare shield for earth
Illustration of the proposed magnetic deflector placed at the Earth-sun L1 Lagrange Point. Credit: Lingam and Loeb, 2017

"The engineering project associated with the magnetic shield that we propose could take a few decades to construct in space," he said. "The cost for lifting the needed infrastructure to space (weighting 100,000 tons) will likely be of order 100 billions of dollars, much less than the expected damage over a century."

Interestingly enough, the idea of using a magnetic shield to protect planets has been proposed before. For example, this type of shield was also the subject of a presentation at this year's "Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop", which was hosted by NASA's Planetary Science Division (PSD). This shield was recommended as a means of enhancing Mars' atmosphere and facilitating crewed mission to its surface in the future.

During the course of the presentation, titled "A Future Mars Environment for Science and Exploration", NASA Director Jim Green discussed how a magnetic shield could protect Mars' tenuous atmosphere from solar wind. This would allow it to replenish over time, which would have the added benefit of warming Mars up and allowing liquid water to again flow on its surface. If this sounds similar to proposals for terraforming Mars, that's because it is.

Beyond Earth and the solar system, the implications for this study are quite overwhelming. In recent years, many terrestrial planets have been found orbiting within nearby M-type (aka. red dwarf) star systems. Because of the way these planets orbit closely to their respective suns, and the variable and unstable nature of M-type stars, scientists have expressed doubts about whether or not these planets could actually be habitable.

New study proposes a giant, space-based solar flare shield for earth
Artist’s impression of a flaring red dwarf star, orbited by an exoplanet. Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

In short, scientists have ventured that over the course of billions of years, rocky planets that orbit close to their suns, are tidally-locked with them, and are subject to regular solar flares would lose their atmospheres. In this respect, magnetic shields could be a possible solution to creating extra-solar colonies. Place a large shield in orbit at the L1 Lagrange point, and you never have to worry again about powerful magnetic storms ravaging the planet!

On top of that, this study offers a possible resolution to the Fermi Paradox. When looking for sign of Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (ETI), it might make sense to monitor distant stars for signs of an orbiting . As Prof. Leob explained, such structures may have already been detected around distant stars, and could explain some of the unusual observations astronomers have made:

"The imprint of a shield built by another civilization could involve the changes it induces in the brightness of the host star due to occultation (similar behavior to Tabby's star) if the structure is big enough. The situation could be similar to Dyson's spheres, but instead of harvesting the energy of the star the purpose of the infrastructure is to protect a technological civilization on a planet from the flares of its host star."

It is a foregone conclusion that as time and technology progress, humanity's presence in (and reliance on) space will increase. As such, preparing for the most drastic the solar system can throw at us just makes sense. And when it comes to the big questions like "are we alone in the Universe?", it also makes sense to take our boldest concepts and proposals and consider how they might point the way towards extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Explore further

More to life than the habitable zone

More information: Impact and mitigation strategy for future solar flares. arXiv.
Journal information: arXiv

Source: Universe Today
Citation: New study proposes a giant, space-based solar flare shield for earth (2017, October 6) retrieved 23 July 2019 from
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User comments

Oct 06, 2017
From the paper:

"The total cost involved in lifting a 100,000 ton object into space would be around $100 billion."

At some point, as we try to build larger and larger structures in space and on other worlds, it makes sense to use materials already found in situ instead of trying to launch everything from Earth's deep gravity well. While all sorts of metal rich NEOs may be around, I keep coming back to 200 mile (320 km) long metal asteroid 16 Psyche. We could build an unbelievable amount of stuff with the iron from that one asteroid, not to mention the mountains of gold, platinum, iridium and other metals left behind. NASA is sending a probe there for many good reasons.

A more subtle aspect of this paper is they immediately considered if such devices built by aliens would be detectable. IMHO, routinely considering the SETI dimension marks increasing sophistication by scientists.

Oct 06, 2017
Such a moronic idea could only come from the plasma ignoramuses. It shows their complete lack of understanding regarding plasma physics and the Sun-Earth connection. It would be comical if it weren't so pathetically sad.

Oct 06, 2017
"it makes sense to use materials already found in situ instead of trying to launch everything from Earth's deep gravity well."

That's true, however we don't have the infrastructure in place to do that yet, and with the conditions on the planet the way they are, I don't see anyone rushing to support those kind of expenditures (outside of die hard space enthusiasts). We do have the infrastructure on earth, however, so the shield idea is simply a matter of selling the monetary benefits to the people down here.

Oct 06, 2017
IronhorseA, while we don't have the infrastructure, we are arguably capable of developing the technology right now. Start with relatively simple cutting, grinding and sorting machines to produce metal powder. Then use 3D printers (additive manufacturing) to print the parts you want with the metal powder. You can start with the iron-nickel meteorites laying around on Mars or the great bulk of 16 Psyche. There may be more easily accessible iron-nickel NEOs as well. While nothing is as easy as it may first appear, and throughput may be an issue for some 3D printers, nobody is saying it can't be done.

Oct 07, 2017
i'd first like to build a flying craft that can survey the magnetic fields sort of a helios flyer no need for batteries on this one, but if a massive twisted magnetic field line is about to snap i'd use time to put it back together sort of like a rubber band and sealing it shut with anti-time particles or in the future we can work in higher topology than space time and just reprogram the sun

Oct 07, 2017
or use a wormhole to vent the plasma

Oct 07, 2017
can someone please build "solar panels" that absorb neutrino's i'm getting bored of imagining it

and another thing if we had sensor in conventional imaging chips c.m.o.s etc that collected the magnetic wavefront not the electric aspect of on electromagnetic wave then we could discern nature from the viewpoint of animals in their negentropic environment and see the bio-field around living creatures which would massively speed up medical and psychological diagnostics

Oct 08, 2017
One way these guys could test this silly idea is to stand next to a Tesla coil behind a single-sided "Faraday Cage".

Oct 08, 2017
I'd be satisfied with orbital solar power satellites. It would help develop launch capability as well.

Oct 08, 2017
Seems like the solar flares impinging on the magnetic shield would push it off its station unless there are thrusters on board to keep it in place. If the force due to a flare is large enough (say from a Carrington Event) the shield would take off for the edge of the solar system like a sail in in a hurricane. Maybe this would be a way to launch interstellar probes?

Oct 10, 2017
First, I think it would be possible, to mitigate the catastrophic effects of a magnetic storm, realizing a loop of wire, of adequate section, on a large area of the magnetic poles (both). These coils, placed in short-circuit may absorb the energy due to changes in the magnetic field due to the interaction with the solar wind, reducing what would be available for the damage of the electricity networks of the entire planet.
There seems fanciful?
It would be less expensive for any damage?
Second, are we sure that this energy is not usable?

Oct 12, 2017
IronhorseA, while we don't have the infrastructure, we are arguably capable of developing the technology right now. ...

I agree, in fact we've been capable of developing the tech for the last 40 years. I've sat in National Space Society meetings for decades listening to scientists come in to discuss this stuff and every time they become leery about actually doing it. Unfortunately, they run NASA, and their focus is pure science, for which they say the don't have the data for what might be possible. They need engineering data, but for them it sounds too much like 'manned space program' which they see as competition for their robotic missions. They like their labs, the don't want to go into space themselves, its dangerous ;P

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