Superstorm! Part 5

StarDate: September 4, 2009

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The weather can be hazardous to your health. The high winds, heavy rains, and lightning produced by big storms are all potential killers.

Space weather can be hazardous to your health, too. Big storms on the Sun shoot particles that could injure or kill an unprotected astronaut. These storms are known as solar flares. They're giant explosions above the Sun's surface. They produce outbursts of energy and protons -- the positively charged particles in the nucleus of an atom.

The protons race into space at up a third of the speed of light. When they hit the human body, they damage cells. High doses can cause cancer or other long-term problems. And the highest doses can kill within days or even hours.

Astronauts in Earth orbit are shielded from solar flares by their spacecraft and Earth's magnetic field. And if necessary, they can return to Earth within hours.

But astronauts on the Moon or on the way to Mars would be in greater peril -- outside Earth's protective magnetic field, and unable to get back home quickly.

Fortunately, solar flares that are strong enough to do serious damage aren't all that common.

Still, astronauts who venture out of Earth orbit will need protection. On the Moon, they can cover their shelters with moondust. And on the way to Mars, they may have emergency shelters that are surrounded by water. So while water may be a deadly part of storms here on Earth, it just might save people from storms in space.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009

For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.

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