In March 2011, scientists from the United Kingdom, Finland, France, Belgium and Spain announced the formation of a project called SPACECAST. The project's purpose is to detect, study and forecast space weather. But these scientists aren't interstellar meteorologists.
Space weather isn't the same as our weather here on Earth. You're not going to get a space forecast of partly cloudy with a chance of showers. Instead, your weather report might sound like something out of a science-fiction film. Rather than precipitation, you'd be looking at gamma radiation and magnetic fluctuations.
Why invest in a project like this in the first place? Because the weather in space affects us. In general, space weather refers to the energy and particles that our sun emits. Without our sun, life on our planet wouldn't exist as we know it. But not everything from the sun is beneficial to life.
Our planet's atmosphere shields us from some of the most harmful radiation from the sun. That includes X-rays and gamma radiation, both of which are high-energy forms of radiation that can strip electrons off of atoms, ionizing them. We're relatively safe from this radiation on the ground. But what happens if we're on a plane? Or what about astronauts, who may be in low orbit or even further out from the planet's surface?
In addition to the risk to human life, space weather can cause harm to electronics. Energy from the sun can muck up everything from satellites in orbit to power grids here on the ground. Let's take a look at how the sun can make the world go dark.