Solar flares destroyed Martian atmosphere, how prepared are we?

New York, April 9 (IANS) A recent NASA study has revealed that massive solar storms stripped Mars of its atmosphere. Now, scientists have issued a warning that we need to do more to be prepared for such a “low probability but high-impact event” striking Earth.

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft, which has been studying the interactions of the Sun and the solar wind with the Mars magnetosphere and upper atmosphere, recently witnessed how a massive solar storm stripped away the planet’s already thin atmosphere, according to the study findings published this week in the journal Science.

“Solar-wind erosion is an important mechanism for atmospheric loss and was important enough to account for significant change in the Martian climate,” noted Joe Grebowsky, MAVEN project scientist.

The so-called “interplanetary coronal mass ejection” caused dramatic spikes in the number of oxygen and carbon dioxide ions spewing into space, the Daily Star Albany reported on Friday.

The March storm was the largest of about a half-dozen similar events that the MAVEN mission has studied since arriving at the Red Planet in September 2014.

The research findings are likely to help scientists explain how Mars evolved from a water-rich, warmer and life-friendly planet into the ‘desert-like’ planet that it is today.

At the same time, the threat posed by a massive solar storm striking Earth is for real, scientists warn as government agencies including the US Department of Homeland Security and NASA plan the course of action for such an eventuality.

Such space weather events have the capacity to cripple vital technology-based infrastructures, and of causing a cascade that could lead to unforeseeable dangers, reported on Saturday.

Although several facilities like the Big Bear Solar Observatory in California and NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory are tasked with observing the Sun, the fact remains that we are alarmingly unprepared for the onslaught of a hugely powerful solar storm.

Moreover, there exist scientific evidence that Earth may have endured minor superflare events in the ancient past, the report added.

Minor solar storms, during which NASA detected anomalies in the agency’s deep space missions, have already caused a blackout in Sweden.

Earth had a near miss in 2012 when an eruption on the Sun produced an unusually large and powerful coronal mass ejection (CME) solar storm that missed striking the planet by just nine days.

If such an event occurs today, say scientists, it could be a technological disaster the world over destroying our satellites, GPS systems and stop planes from flying.

According to an estimate by London-based insurance company Lloyd’s, the US electric grid’s recovery from a significant solar storm alone could cost between $600 billion and $2.6 trillion.

An earlier study, published in the Journal of Space Weather and Space Climate, said the indices used by scientists to assess the Sun’s geomagnetic perturbations to the Earth are unable to detect some of these events.

“A Carrington-like event may occur more often than we expect; actually, it might have already happened without us even realising it,” said study lead author Consuelo Cid from Tihany Magnetic Observatory in Hungary.

There is an urgent need to develop local indices that are truly useful to companies that may be affected by these disturbances, such as electric companies, Cid noted.

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