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What does a "Low-tech" system for protecting a planet from a Solar Storm look like? - Printable Version

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What does a "Low-tech" system for protecting a planet from a Solar Storm look like? - Bear - 10-24-2023

I'm thinking of a system applicable to the first millennium of the space age.

We're familiar with the threat: A solar eruption sends a whole lot of charged particles hurtling toward Earth.  We get a Carrington event, or if we're really unlucky, a Miyake event.

So how, in the first millennium, does Earth (which has "reasonable" protection in the form of a magnetic field) or Mars (which doesn't really) prepare for and defend against this event, in a way that helps protect the entire planet as opposed to protecting a single installation on its surface?  The strength of civilization is that we can build shared infrastructure, so what infrastructure do we build?

I got one "easy" idea but not the technical chops to really evaluate its effectiveness.  Let's say we put a spacecraft in place at Earth-sun (or Mars-Sun) L1 with something on board to 'defocus' or 'scatter' the particle swarm (by disrupting the attendant magnetic field) before it gets here. It would be heavy, and therefore expensive, require significant ongoing investment in station keeping, usable exactly once, and last for maybe a few hours at most, but if that's capable of blunting a repeat of the Carrington event, or worse, the expenses could be a cheap price for an insurance premium.

My first idea for the 'something' was about forty tons of powdered aluminum with a detonator at the center.  A massive spike in radio, followed minutes later by massive spikes in magnetic flux and particulate radiation, and we set off the detonator.  My understanding of magnetic fields and swarms of charged particles is rudimentary, but it seems plausible that a rapidly-expanding cloud of conductive dust could be disruptive enough to the magnetic field of the ions in the solar storm that the whole thing might defocus by several planetary radii between L1 and Earth. 

My second idea for the 'something' is a wide, sparse net of conductive wire, spread out and held in place by centripetal force as the spacecraft spins.  This is on much more solid technical grounds, because it's a magnetic sail and it's been studied for propulsion.  If we bring up a high-tension static charge in that net of wire, we can cause massive disruption in the magnetic field carrying along the ions of the solar storm.  The side effect of course is that this would ground the momentum of the charged particles, causing acceleration of the spacecraft (assuming it is not built into a billion-ton asteroid, because we probably don't want one of those precariously balanced at L1 ....) and pushing it rapidly off station.  But "rapidly" is relative, and if it lasts at least a few hours that ought to be enough to blunt a significant solar storm.  It would require a substantial power source to cancel the charge imparted to the network by incident ions, but well within "ordinary" capabilities for any civilization that can do in-situ resource utilization on the surface of Luna. 

I have a second idea that's considerably "easier" but it's only easy once an orbital ring has been built. So, you know, hard considered from our current perspective.  One of the most useful parts of an orbital ring will be the maglev rails that allow it to be used for transportation. Charging those maglev rails and keeping them charged should serve adequately as a fake magnetosphere for Mars, or as a substantial reinforcement for the magnetosphere of Earth.

Do these ideas work?  Or at least sound plausible? 

Is there something else that would be cheaper, more reliable, or easier to do as an effective insurance policy against Carrington and Miyake events?

RE: What does a "Low-tech" system for protecting a planet from a Solar Storm look like? - Drashner1 - 10-24-2023

In terms of your second suggestion, this like a lower tech version of the Lagrange Magshield used in OA as part of the terraforming of Mars. See the link in the Development Notes for a RL article on the idea.

This article also talks about various possible methods for preparing for/predticting/detecting/protecting against a Carrington level event without going into space at all. It seems like it might best fit the tech level you're suggesting since it doesn't seem to require megaengineering (by our current standards), just a moderately high degree of global cooperation and national will. And it sounds like at least some parts of it might already be in the works or at least getting planned for/discussed.

Hope this helps,


RE: What does a "Low-tech" system for protecting a planet from a Solar Storm look like? - Cray - 12-13-2023

I think there's a bit of disasterbation around solar flares and the threat to Earth. The solar storms that have hit Earth in the 20th and 21st Centuries only caused some inconveniences. The 1989 storm, the Bastille Day storm, and the Halloween storm caused glitches to some modern systems, and weren't global in effect.

The problems caused by solar flares to Earthbound system is primarily developed in long conductors, i.e., power lines. (Above the atmosphere, charged particles are a direct problem to electronics, but such electronics are typically hardened.) This tends to manifest as voltage instability in electrical grids, which is unpleasant for everything plugged in at the time, and damaging high voltage transformers. 

Basically, solar flares attack electrical systems like lightning strikes. They drive lots of current through conductors, and they go for long conductors like power lines, transformers, and some antennae. Flares don't magically erase data or cripple electronics, they create large electrical surges.

Noting where the trouble originates, you don't need a dramatic LaGrange mag shield to protect Earth from large flares. It takes relatively little to protect against flares (and EMP). The US figures it can harden its electrical grid against mega-flares (and EMP) for $10 to $30 billion, which is about what the federal government loses as loose coins between sofa cushions every year. Some steps:

0. Get up early warning satellites and operate solar observatories.
1. Given a flare warning, utility operators could shut down their most vulnerable, least protected grid elements. (In fact, the threats are likely regional, not global, so observatories would offer forecast warnings to specific areas. NOAA does this now.)
2. Utility operators can add some energy sponges to the grid, like flywheels, to soak up excess current.
3. Avoid certain types of transformers ("saturated transformers") that are the most vulnerable. It is possible to really harden transformers.
4. Dividing large electrical grids into more fault-tolerant, nonsynchronous sectors (e.g., isolated by direct current links) will help block cascading failures.
5. Having redundant black-start capability built into the grid will help - keep those dams and diesel generators in good shape. (Quick-starting generators will also help balance loads on an unstable grid.)
6. On a small scale: surge protectors and circuit breakers. 
7. On a small scale: unplug your gear.

Many of those safety features will work without warning, too.

Your typical cellphone would not be bothered by a super flare unless it was caught plugged into the grid, and cars shouldn't care much unless they were also getting a grid charge at the time.

For discussions on hardening, see:
GAO report on hardening against mega-flares
Utah's assessment see page 7.