Space weather is the concept of changing environmental conditions in near-Earth space. It is distinct from the concept of weather within a planetary atmosphere, and deals with phenomena involving ambient plasma, magnetic fields, radiation and other matter in space. “Space weather” often implicitly means the conditions in near-Earth space within the magnetosphere, but it is also studied in interplanetary (and occasionally interstellar space).
Within our own solar system, space weather is greatly influenced by the speed and density of the solar wind and the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) carried by the solar wind plasma. A variety of physical phenomena are associated with space weather, including geomagnetic storms and substorms, energization of the Van Allen radiation belts, ionospheric disturbances and scintillation, aurora and geomagnetically induced currents at Earth’s surface. Coronal Mass Ejections and their associated shock waves are also important drivers of space weather as they can compress the magnetosphere and trigger geomagnetic storms. Solar Energetic Particles, accelerated by coronal mass ejections or solar flares, are also an important driver of space weather as they can damage electronics onboard spacecraft through induced electric currents, and threaten the life of astronauts.
Space weather exerts a profound influence in several areas related to space exploration and development. Changing geomagnetic conditions can induce changes in atmospheric density causing the rapid degradation of spacecraft altitude in Low Earth orbit. Geomagnetic storms due to increased solar activity can potentially blind sensors aboard spacecraft, or interfere with on-board electronics. An understanding of space environmental conditions is also important in designing shielding and life support systems for manned spacecraft. There is also some concern that geomagnetic storms may also expose conventional aircraft flying at high latitudes to increased amounts of radiation.
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