Scientists believe NASA should move forward with its Artemis missions to the Moon.
Is NASA really planning to return humans to the moon in 2024? That was the progressively improbable mandate issued to the agency by the Trump administration. President Biden has not changed that goal yet, but most experts expect him to give NASA some much-needed breathing room and push the deadline back to later in the decade.
According to a new analysis, intense solar activity could make potential Artemis missions too risky to launch later this decade. The researchers discovered some interesting variations in the frequency of extreme space weather events between even- and odd-numbered solar cycles after analyzing 150 years of evidence.
Future moon explorers will face difficulties due to the burning hot gas at the center of our solar system. Despite its distance of 93 million miles from Earth, the sun’s surface activity sends radioactive particles into the solar system. The Earth’s magnetic field protects us from the worst of it here on Earth, but astronauts on the moon are fully exposed.
The issue is that 2024 could be a better bet. Based on a recent study published in the journal Solar Physics, space weather events—radiation storms and supercharged solar particles—will be more common in the second half of the decade.
Any crewed missions to the moon between 2026 and 2029 will be seriously compromised as a result of this. If NASA is serious about returning to the moon and keeping astronauts safe, it might be wise to speed up efforts to ensure that it happens before 2026—or wait until the end of the decade.
“Until now, the most extreme space-weather events were thought to be random in their timing and thus little could be done to plan around them,” an astrophysicist at the University of Reading, Mathew Owens, said.
The inferno’s magnetic fields flip north and south during solar cycles, which last 11 years. The odd-numbered Solar Cycle 25, which started in December 2019 and will last until about 2030, has just recently begun. The sun’s activity will increase before the solar maximum, which is expected around 2025.
The sun becomes ferocious during the solar maximum as the magnetic field prepares to flip. It is subjected to massive “coronal mass ejections,” which are massive plasma releases that billow into space. This come from the sun and can impact items like communications satellites and power grids if they are aimed directly at the Earth. That’s with the help of a magnetic field to keep things secure.
We don’t have to wonder about what could happen if we don’t have one — we have more than enough evidence. The Hayabusa spacecraft, a Japanese Space Agency robot that was the first to return asteroid samples to Earth, was damaged by a massive solar flare in 2003. Protection from extreme space weather on the moon’s surface is also minimal.
Both NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration believe that Solar Cycle 25 will not be “particularly active,” but extreme events will occur, and we will not be able to predict them.
This is where the latest research comes into play. Researchers studied 150 years of solar cycle data and discovered that severe space weather events were more likely to occur early in even-numbered periods. Those severe events typically happened much later in odd-numbered periods, such as the one we’re in now.
“These new findings should allow us to make better space weather forecasts for the solar cycle that is just beginning and will run for the decade or so,” Owens explained.
It’s unclear why this occurs, but it may be related to the alignment of the sun’s and Earth’s magnetic fields during an unusual solar cycle. Nonetheless, the latest information will aid in preparation.
Future missions to the moon (or even Mars) might take the latest research into account, just as you could schedule your trip to the supermarket on Wednesday when the skies are clear rather than Thursday when the skies are supposed to open up.
The data shows that NASA’s Artemis mission, which aims to return humans to the moon by 2024, will need to stick to its ambitious schedule in order to avoid the extreme space weather expected at the end of this decade. Whatever the launch date, NASA will keep an eye on the weather.
“There is no bad weather, just bad preparation,” said Jake Bleacher, chief scientist for NASA’s human exploration and operations mission directorate in September 2020 when discussing the new solar cycle.
“Space weather is what it is — our job is to prepare.”