Our Cold War history is now offering scientists a chance to better understand the complex space system that surrounds us.
Space weather—which can include changes in Earth’s magnetic environment—are usually triggered by the sun’s activity, but recently declassified data on high-altitude nuclear explosion tests have provided a new look at the mechansisms that set off perturbations in that magnetic system.
Such information can help support NASA’s efforts to protect satellites and astronauts from the natural radiation inherent in space.
From 1958 to 1962, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. ran high-altitude tests with exotic code names like Starfish, Argus and Teak.
The tests have long since ended, and the goals at the time were military. Today, however, they can provide crucial information on how humans can affect space. The tests, and other human-induced space weather, are the focus of a comprehensive new study published in Space Science Reviews.
“The tests were a human-generated and extreme example of some of the space weather effects frequently caused by the sun,” said Phil Erickson, assistant director at MIT’s Haystack Observatory, Westford, Massachusetts, and co-author on the paper.
“If we understand what happened in the somewhat controlled and extreme event that was caused by one of these man-made events, we can more easily understand the natural variation in the near-space environment.”
By and large, space weather ? which affects the region of near-Earth space where astronauts and satellites travel ? is typically driven by external factors.