Are solar storms hazardous? It depends on how fast they move.
Studying the speed of particles in solar storms may help predict dangerous impacts: the slower the particles' speed, the higher the risk, say NASA scientists.
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"The lower-energy protons are sufficiently slow that we slow them down and stop them with our bodies, so they do more damage," said Joseph Kunches, a scientist at the Space Weather Prediction Center, which is jointly managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Weather Service.Skip to next paragraph
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The Space Weather Prediction Center monitors solar activity and assesses the potential impact of solar storms.
"Generally speaking, if they're slower, they'll deposit all of the energy into your body because they're not fast enough to fly right through," Kunches told SPACE.com.
Measuring radiation from the sun
To test the accuracy of their warning system, the researchers matched their calculations for 12 solar storms to observations made by geosynchronous satellites, and found comparable results for charged particles with energies higher than 40 million to 80 million (or megaelectron) volts.
According to Kunches, the new system is particularly useful to protect astronauts on future missions beyond low-Earth orbit, but the energy levels measured are still too low.
"The energy that they focus on is like the energy that would be a serious issue if you were going to go to Mars and go back to the moon," Kunches explained. "As you go to higher energies, your lead time is diminished."
Still, Kunches said the system represents an incremental improvement in space weather forecasting.
"It's valuable, but I think it's valuable for really educated users who know exactly what energies may be problematic for them," Kunches said.
Details of the warning system are reported in the journal Space Weather: The International Journal of Research and Applications, which is published by the American Geophysical Union.
The research was funded by the National Research Foundation of Korea through the South Korean government and by the U.S. National Science Foundation and NASA.
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