“Before becoming an astronaut, I listened to many stories about the astronauts who saw the white flash of radiation during a spacewalk,” says Terry Virtsu, a former NASA astronaut. On the fifth night of his first flight mission on space Shuttle endeavour in 2010 — when it was time for sleep “I closed my eyes, and boom! A giant white blinding flash appeared before my eyes, and I didn’t hear anything”.
The more entrepreneurs are faced with space flight — like SpaceX CEO Elon musk, who recently launched their Falcon Heavy rocket in Florida — the more often they encounter unusual phenomena such as described above.
One of the strangest phenomena — that which witnessed the Virtsu. This is the South Atlantic anomaly (SAA), which represents a massive burst without sound. But SAA is not just a strange sight. It damages the computers in the surrounding area and exposed people nearby increased levels of radiation. For this he was called the “cosmic Bermuda triangle”.
As manned space flights are becoming more common, and the astronauts are increasingly relying on computers, the problems that entails SAA can only get worse.
To understand SAA, first you need to understand the radiation belt van Allen. It’s two zones of charged particles in the shape of a torus surrounding the Earth and held in place by a magnetic field. “The sun sends out huge amount of radiation,” says Virtsu, “and a lot of particles like electrons are shot from the surface of the Sun. All of this material arrives from outer space and the solar magnetic field can redirect. Once on Earth, he is captured by the magnetic field and forms these radiation belts in space.”
The good news is that the van Allen belts protect the earth from the charged electronic particles, abandoned by the sun. The bad news is that there is one thing.
The earth is not quite circular; it is slightly convex in the middle. The magnetic poles of the Earth are not correspond to the geographical poles, so they shifted, and with them the van Allen belt. SAA is born where the inner radiation belt van Allen is at the lowest point and closest to the Earth. Because of the inclination of the magnetic field is strongest in the North, and the region over the South Atlantic and Brazil is on the path of belts of van Allen.
For Earth, it is a no-brainer. But causes damage to any satellites and other spacecraft like the International space station, which pass through this area, and the people on Board. The Virtsu well remember your flight in 2010 and time spent on the ISS in 2014.
White flashes reported by astronauts, also affect computers. “We have acronyms for all events at NASA,” says Virtsu. “Is SEU — single disorder. This acronym means that the computer is “blinking”, and they occur quite often.”
“There is a well-known area in which various types of satellites — not just a space station with people, but ordinary communications satellites — to face problems,” he adds. “In such moments I want to fly as soon as possible”.
For example, the Hubble space telescope in such moments can not carry out astronomical observations, flying through this region.
How do the vehicles and passengers to protect themselves from this radiation flux? Water is the best defense, says the Virtsu. On the ISS, the astronauts use a “water wall”. “It’s just a 23-pound bags of water,” he says. They wrapped as sleeping astronauts.
Radiation is carefully monitored during space flights. “There are several electronic detectors, which simply reads the radiation bursts, and send data to Earth,” says Virtsu. “Each of us has a radiation monitor on all the time while we’re in space. I kept it in my pocket throughout the mission, every time. Even going into space, I took it with me in the pocket”.
This battle between Earth’s magnetic field and the solar wind shows another interesting effect: the Aurora. It is caused by the fact that the highly charged particles from the sun hitting the Earth’s atmosphere, creating a greenish glow.
On Earth people travel thousands of miles to see the Aurora. But on the ISS they can be seen best. “From space Northern lights is very different from the southern lights,” says Virtsu. “The Northern lights from the perspective of the ISS has always been a thin strip somewhere in the distance, and southern lights have always been a large cloud, which is closer to the station.”
Over 215 days in space, this painting has always stayed with him. “You fly and see a giant green and red dancing clouds. On Earth there is nothing like this”.
No matter how beautiful this kind, the more widespread become the space mission and the flight, the farther away the probes are, the stronger must the spacecraft to carry the SAA and radiation exposure.
“As we go deeper into the Solar system and farther from the Earth, all of us will be less dependent on the mission control center, which can provide us with instant help,” says Virtsu. “We may have to wait a few minutes because of the speed of light to get an answer. We need computers with artificial intelligence and the like”.
And the more powerful the computer the more it is vulnerable for problems with radiation. To find protection will be very important for the future of space exploration.