A massive solar storm could keep us grounded on Earth for a decade

It’s decently likely that, sometime in the future, a major solar storm will hit Earth, wreaking havoc on our infrastructure and crippling our satellites. But there’s a more long-term danger: space could become too dangerously radioactive to stay there.

And some new research indicates that we could face a situation that keeps us from exploring space, within our lifetimes.

While we haven’t sent humans beyond low-Earth orbit in close to forty years, we’ve carved out quite a niche for ourselves in the area of space directly around our planet. The International Space Station provides a constant human presence in space, and we’ve built up a massive network of satellites that are crucial to our communications infrastructure, not to mention navigation, scientific research, weather monitoring, and a bunch of other things.

What allows us to keep humans and all that sensitive electronics up there is the presence of huge clouds of plasma, which extend out to a few times Earth’s radius and provide a buffer zone against cosmic radiation. Without this protective cloud, electromagnetic waves could form, which would send deadly radiation bursts into the space above Earth.

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