What happens when the solar wind blows?

Find out what's blowing in the solar wind, what the wind is, and how changes in it can affect us down here on Earth.

If the day should come that anyone here is no longer entertained by the local, national, or even global weather -and let's face it, Io9 readers are voracious – it's time to go to the delightfully named spaceweather.com. Among the updates on sun spots, lunar eclipses, and the sun's continuing attempt to murder us all with x-rays, there is on exactly how fast and dense the solar wind is at the moment.

This is of concern to us because unlike most planets, who keep their winds pretty much to themselves by waiting until they're in their car or office, the sun is that one heavenly body that will let winds fly when it's in a crowded elevator. It shares its wind with the rest of the solar system. That's a problem, because its wind consists of incredibly hot ionized particles traveling between around 300 and 700 kilometers per second.

The solar wind consists of plasma; atoms so hot that they lose their ability to even hold on to their electrons and become ionized. Charged particles are shot off the sun's corona and out into space. Solar winds have speed, heat, pressure and density, just like any winds on earth. They also carry with them clouds of magnetic charge. Obviously, getting hit with a dense cluster of hot, fast-moving charged particles affects things. Solar winds are the reason that the ‘tails' of comets point away from the sun. They also can pose risks to people or equipment in space. Since equipment in space now controls a lot of things down here on earth, knowing how to predict solar winds is important.

Despite the dangers they pose, solar winds also give protection to people and equipment in space. This protection is slowly being lost. Solar winds are dying down. In 2008, they hit a fifty-year low. It's not known how normal this is, since solar winds are monitored by equipment in space, and so the data gathered about them is pretty recent, but there are some consequences. Solar winds puff up the heliosphere – a big puffball of magnetism that serves as padding for the solar system.

What happens when the solar wind blows?

It deflects cosmic rays, some of which can be harmful. They don't endanger people on earth, but they do affect people in space. Solar winds fluff up the heliosphere, and with them dying down, it is collapsing. This means that astronauts can get a larger amount of space radiation when they're outside of earth's atmosphere. Space radiation is not as super-power-inducing as it sounds, so the hunt for the reasons behind the drop in intensity of solar winds continues.

Via NASA, NASA, NASA and NASA. Thanks, NASA!