Extreme space weather could jeopardize NASA’s Artemis lunar missions

The sun’s performance is expected to crawl to the next predicted high in 2025.

NASA Goddard

The flaming hot gas bubble in the center of our solar system could prove problematic for future lunar explorers. Although it sits about 93 million miles from Earth, the activity occurring on the solar surface blows radioactive particles into the solar system. The Earth’s magnetic field protects us from the worst of this activity below, but astronauts on the moon are naked (… except for the outerwear, I hope.)

A new study, published Thursday in the journal Solar Physics, suggests NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions landing people on the moon could be a difficult experience with space weather. Analyzing 150 years of data, the researchers found some interesting differences in the occurrence of extreme space weather events between even and odd solar cycles.

“So far, the most extreme space weather events were supposed to be random in their time and so little could be done to plan around them,” said Mathew Owens, an astrophysicist at the University of Reading.

Solar cycles occur in 11-year-old blocks and see the magnetic fields of hell turn north and south. We have only just entered the odd Solar Cycle 25, which started sometime in December 2019 and will last until around 2030. Performance on the sun will grow to the solar maximum, which will take place around 2025.

During the solar maximum, the sun goes wild while the magnetic field prepares its big launch. It experiences huge “coronal mass ejections” – giant releases of plasma that flow out into space. These come out of the sun and, if they are directed directly at the Earth, can affect things like communications satellites and even electrical networks. And here it is with the protection of a magnetic field.

We don’t have to imagine what could have happened without one – we have a lot of evidence. In 2003, a giant solar flare was responsible for damage to the Hayabusa spacecraft, a Japanese Space Agency robot that became the first to return asteroid samples to Earth. And on the surface of the moon, protection against extreme space weather is limited.

Both NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration do not believe that Solar Cycle 25 will be “particularly active” but extreme events will occur and we do not have a good way to predict them.

Here is the new research. Looking back at 150-year data on the solar cycle, researchers found that in even cycles, extreme space weather events are likely to occur early on. In odd cycles, like the one we are in now, those extreme events often happened much later.

“These new findings should allow us to make better space weather forecasts for the solar cycle that is just beginning and will continue for the decade or so,” Owens said.

It’s not clear why this happens, though, but it could relate to the way the sun and the Earth’s magnetic fields line up during a strange solar cycle. However, the new knowledge will help planning. Just as you could plan your trip to the supermarket on Wednesday when the sky is clear, instead of Thursday, when the skies are waiting, future missions to the moon (or even to Mars) could be considered the new analysis.

The data suggests that NASA’s Artemis, which aims to get humans back to the moon by 2024, will really need to meet its ambitious schedule to avoid the extreme space weather expected to occur by the end of this decade. Whatever the launch date, be sure NASA has one eye on the forecast.

“There’s no bad weather, just bad preparation,” said Jake Bleacher, chief scientist for NASA’s human research and operations mission board in September 2020 during a discussion of the new solar cycle.

“Space weather is what it is – our job is to prepare.”