The newly discovered way that space-weather accelerates hurricanes

Omicron’s speed, at more than a thousand times the speed of light, opens new, potentially dangerous, questions about how to build and maintain an electrical shield that protects satellites and sensitive equipment from the…

The newly discovered way that space-weather accelerates hurricanes

Omicron’s speed, at more than a thousand times the speed of light, opens new, potentially dangerous, questions about how to build and maintain an electrical shield that protects satellites and sensitive equipment from the intensely high-energy particles.

In February 2016, NASA’s Antares rocket exploded just minutes after taking off, killing the three crew members on board. The emergency disintegration came with the most visible effect—radio blackouts, powered out of control and quickly unable to share information with others—but engineers discovered that the explosion also briefly extended the reach of the particle accelerator responsible for creating the energetic, ionized gases in the rocket’s upper stages.

Rocket failures such as this one, and the lightning that follows from exploding rockets, are constantly facing scientists with new challenges. Now, two British researchers, Charles Shaw, of Imperial College London, and Martin Walley, of Bristol University, have released a paper that describes the explosion of last year’s Antares rocket in great detail—and those details spell even more trouble for those looking to protect satellites and sensitive equipment from the fast-moving protons.

Shaw and Walley describe how particles which circulate the solar wind–the wind of particles (mostly protons) that stream in from the sun’s surface–accumulate with equal frequency, pushed from the sun’s side by particles gathered by the Earth. When one such particle bumps into the oppositely charged opposite front of the solar wind, the collision accelerates it–nearly 1.5 times the speed of light, or the speed at which light disappears. Within a few seconds, the photons are carried into Earth’s magnetic field, where they can follow the magnetic field lines in reverse. Suddenly, these ions fall apart, slowing to a speed of between 450,000 and 800,000 miles per hour, which appears to be out of even the most powerful accelerators, Shaw and Walley write in their paper.

Those dramatically slower speeds were enough to slow the Antares rocket down during its escape velocity, or maximum rate of acceleration–although that’s still roughly five times the speed of light. As a result, the rocket’s engines were not designed to accelerate electrons on the way to space, instead focusing all the impulse on burning the rocket’s fuel.

However, these ions from the solar wind still have the potential to slow down even more, Shaw and Walley write, which accelerates the break-up of their atoms and electrons even faster. And with relatively inexpensive hardware, they could certainly accelerate to that speed, very, very quickly.

To reduce the chance of a “bracketing effect” in these matter-speed collisions, some missions use relatively small accelerators (six kilometers or so wide, at the maximum) that accelerate electrons to a few hundred times the speed of light. Because a single electron can’t speed up a full nucleus of matter, this slower acceleration can increase the likelihood of bracketing, where matter slows down far more slowly than it’s supposed to, Shaw and Walley explain in their paper.

Shaw and Walley aren’t the first to describe the bracketing effect: In 1999, astrophysicist Daniel Mason wrote a paper that detailed how particle accelerators can pull together an electrical shield that absorbs energy from the powerful solar winds. Unfortunately, that shielding doesn’t effectively reverse a bracketing effect. The most effective design would be to accelerate electrons along a zig-zag path, constantly slowing them as they enter the line of magnetized Earth-directed current that would protect the particle beam from energy from the solar wind.

Even though such designs exist, doing so is as difficult as mounting a solid aluminum platform to deflect an approaching bullet, Shaw and Walley point out. It would be more complex to place the apparatus near the sun, they write, adding that “structural design challenges are therefore pressing concerns.” It’s a design they plan to discuss in a separate paper.

Even if the design could be made to work, shielding wouldn’t prevent the debris produced by the high-energy particles from being carried around the planet. Another issue that needs to be addressed is what happens to the ions they collide with when they slow down to faster than a nickel and tin bullet colliding, Shaw and Walley say. To protect those shards, they say the opposing wave of matter should be bent in a way that keeps the electron in what is called a detachable state.

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