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No. 123: May-Jun 1999

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The Storm-Swept Cosmos

Snug and comfy beneath our insulating atmosphere and magnetosphere, we muse glibly about voyages to the stars and wonder whether extraterrestrials may already have established galactic civilizations. What we often ignore is the fact that forces and energies almost beyond our comprehension course through the cosmos. Even the Starship Enterprise could not really survive out there. Three cautionary tidits will illustrate the hazards as well as our ignorance of them.

"What could possibly accelerate a single subatomic particle to such a high speed, 99.99999999999999999999 percent that of light, that it would smash into the earth's atmosphere with the energy of a hard-hit tennis ball? If you don't have a clue you're not alone. These particles are ultra-high-energy cosmic rays, which are billions of times more energetic than the run-of-the-mill cosmic rays that continuously bombard earth's atmosphere."

(Anonymous; "Space Streakers," Astronomy, 27:34, March 1999.)

"The most powerful explosion ever ever observed -- a deep space eruption detected in January -- released in just seconds a burst of energy equal to billions of years of light from thousands of suns. Researchers say in studies to be published today that the explosion, called a gamma-ray burst, occurred 9 billion light years from earth. What caused the explosion is a mystery."

(Anonymous; "Blast's Light May Have Been Greater Than Rest of Universe," Baltimore Sun, March 26, 1999.)

"Every day, the sun blows billions of tons of ionized gas, electrons and protons into space -- the "solar wind." Sometimes, especially near the solar maximum, this wind is punctuated by squalls and storms of dangerous highenergy particles."

Two giant solar storms erupted in 1972. Luckily, they were sandwiched between Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 missions to the moon. If the astronauts had been caught on the lunar surface during one of these storms, they would probably have died.

(Roylance, Frank D.; "Sun Puts Chill on Space Missions," Baltimore Sun, Apil 1, 1999.)

From Science Frontiers #123, MAY-JUN 1999. 1999-2000 William R. Corliss