Living in the Sun's Atmosphere
Illustration of a blast of solar wind impacting
Earth's protective magnetic field. Credit: NASABreathe in, exhale. Feel the air in your mouth, windpipe, and lungs. That's a sample of Earth's atmosphere: the thin layer of gases enveloping our planet.
Did you know that the Sun also has an atmosphere, and that the Earth is inside it? In fact, the Sun's envelope of gases extends well beyond the orbit of Pluto, out to the regions of the solar system where the 3-decade-old Voyager spacecraft are only now reaching.
"Space weather" refers to the conditions in space caused by the outflow of electrically charged gases (plasma) coming from the Sun—what we call the "solar wind." The term "space weather" may conjure images of cosmic tornadoes, astral lightning bursts, and some Star Trek version of a galactic hurricane– but actual space weather is nothing so Earthly and familiar.
First of all, the "air" in space is nothing like the atmosphere we draw our breath from. Earth air, at the surface, is made of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide, water vapor, and other trace elements, and is relatively dense. "Space air" is mostly hydrogen– ionized hydrogen at that (meaning stripped of its electrons and so electrically charged; the separated electrons are also blowing along in the solar wind).
Second, the gases of the solar wind are extremely rarified. Despite the talk of a solar atmosphere, solar wind, and space weather, space within the solar system is still almost a complete vacuum. At Earth's distance from the Sun, the average density of the solar wind is somewhere between 6 and 9 atoms (mostly hydrogen) per cubic centimeter. If you spread out the gas contained in an ordinary party balloon to this same thinness, it would fill a volume of space over 10 miles across!
Third, the solar wind, for all its sparseness, blows fast! Depending on conditions of space weather, the flow of solar wind past the Earth can speed along anywhere from 200 to 900 kilometers per second! Earth's fastest winds slug along at only a few hundred kilometers per HOUR.
So how does space weather—the changing conditions of the solar wind—affect us on Earth? How might you, personally, have experienced, directly or indirectly, the effects of the Sun's gentle breeze?
The most familiar phenomenon caused by space weather is Earth's beautiful auroras —the northern and southern lights. Interactions between the solar wind and Earth's magnetic field and electrically charged particles trapped in it excite atoms in the upper atmosphere to emit light. And it's not just a softly glowing night light: the most powerful auroras can generate up to a trillion Watts of power!
Solar wind "storms" can not only produce more active auroras, but can cause fluctuations in Earth's magnetic field whose effects can be felt on the ground. These "geomagnetic storms" usually pass unnoticed, perhaps causing a tiny change in the direction that compass needles point– but have also been known to overload electrical power grids and cause blackouts.
In the space around Earth, solar storms have been known to damage or disable satellites, and can put unprotected astronauts at risk. Space walks on the International Space Station are scheduled for times when space weather is – so to speak -"sunny and calm."
Thinking about space weather on Earth might seem like worrying over Atlantic hurricanes here in the Bay Area—but with more and more human activity taking place beyond the confines of our atmosphere, this is a very real and vital concern, and is taken very seriously.
Benjamin Burress is a staff astronomer at The Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland, CA.