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NASA will close solar coronal holes to make future human missions to Mars possible

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced today that it is planning to use strong magnets to close solar coronal holes, a prime source of harmful energetic particles in interplanetary space to make future human missions to Mars a reality.

Image: Artist render of an astronaut on Mars.

Technology is advancing and it is only a matter of time before NASA will launch its first human mission to Mars. One major problem that makes such a mission impossible right now are the high number of energetic particles in outer space that are dangerous to humans. Here on Earth we are protected from these harmful particles by our planet's magnetic field but it is impossible to protect yourself from these dangerous particle in outer space. These energetic particles penetrate the space craft in which the astrounouts will travel and expose the astronauts to unacceptable levels of radiation which would cause irreversible health problems.

NASA states that the Sun is the primary source of these harmful particles. To be more specific, coronal holes are the big problem. The high speed solar wind streams from coronal holes are the single biggest source of energetic particles in interplanetary space and eliminating this problem will make human misisons to Mars possible.

A coronal hole is area on Sun where magnetic field lines stay open and stretch out into space instead of returning to the surface. At the moment we do not yet know where they reconnect. Instead of keeping the hot gas together, these open magnetic field lines cause a hole in the solar corona to form where solar wind and dangerous energetic particles can escape into space.

NASA announced earlier today that it has found a solution which will radically reduce the radiation risk for astronauts in interplanetary space by launching a mission to close these coronal holes. By closing these coronal holes NASA states that the Sun will emit up to 95% less of these energetic particles. This drastic decrease in the amount of energetic particles in interplanetary space means that human missions to Mars will be possible.

NASA plans to launch a space craft in 2020 which will orbit the Sun and shoot extremly strong neodymium magnets towards the solar surface when a coronal hole starts to form. These magnets will alter the local magnetic field of the coronal hole, closing the open loops which in turn will cause the coronal hole to disappear. These magnets are of course not strong enough to survive the intense heat on the Sun for very long but long enough to alter the magnetic field and close the coronal hole.

Image: Artist render of the space craft (left) that NASA is planning to launch into space to close solar coronal holes (right).

However, this news is bad for us aurora lovers. High speed coronal hole solar wind streams are a prime and reliable source of geomagnetic activity (and aurora displays!) here on Earth. Geomagnetic storms sometimes up to the moderate G2 geomagnetic storm level are not uncommon when a coronal hole solar wind stream engulfs our planet. Because we can see coronal holes on the earth-facing side of our Sun we know days in advance that we might be hit be a such a solar wind stream making it a very reliable and recurring source of geomagnetic storms. However, with this news we now know that starting next year we will only have coronal mass ejections to relay on for geomagnetic storm activity on Earth. Coronal holes are a thing of the past.

 

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