Space Weather: What Is It and Why Does It Matter on Earth

northern lights in night sky
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Weather in space? Is such a thing even possible? The answer, in short, is a resounding yes

Today, we reached into our mailbag to address a topic that was recently posed to our resident experts here at Rainbow Symphony: “What is space weather?” The question may not seem relevant. Yet, depending on the type of space weather you’re talking about, it can have a real effect on how we live our day to day lives here on Earth.

Understanding Weather on Earth

When most people think of weather, they typically think in terms of precipitation: rain, snow, hail, and the like. Perhaps that’s why the thought of space weather seems so strange to some people. After all, there are no torrential rainstorms in the great expanses of outer space!

Yet, when we properly define weather here on earth, it gives us a glimpse of how weather is possible in space. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, weather is the “state of the atmosphere at a particular place during a short period of time. It involves such atmospheric phenomena as solar radiation, temperature, humidity, precipitation (type, frequency, and amount), air pressure, wind (speed and direction), and cloud cover.” These many atmospheric phenomena are largely directed by our sun, with cosmic rays and solar cycles guiding our weather patterns.

Defining Space Weather

Understanding weather on Earth helps give us a framework to better answer the question, “What is space weather?” In much the same way as weather on earth, different types of space weather are associated with changes in the sun. The US National Space Weather Program defines space weather as “...conditions on the Sun and in the solar wind, magnetosphere, ionosphere, and thermosphere.” As the conditions on the sun fluctuate, it changes the environment of space: weather! Although these don’t manifest themselves in the same ways that Earth weather patterns do, they’re just as important for us to understand.

Why Is Space Weather Relevant?

satellite over the earth

Have you ever checked the weather before you left home for the day? It’s likely you have, because the weather can affect your plans in many ways. How about checking the space weather report? Believe it or not, it exists! NASA tracks all types of space weather, with the reason being that it’s pertinent to the world we live in, whether you realize it or not.

Solar weather patterns can influence satellites in space, cell phone service on Earth, Global Positioning Systems, and a host of other celestial and terrestrial electronic systems. Depending on the severity and type of space weather, entire electrical grids can actually be knocked off-line. Many of our modern technologies are susceptible to space weather conditions, and the more interconnected we become through complex computer systems, the more important it is for companies, governments, and even individuals to be aware of the impact of space weather on our world.

Different Types of Space Weather

solar flare coming from sun

So, what is space weather? When we think of Earth weather, we’re pretty familiar with the terms: wind, precipitation, temperature, and a host of other phenomena. But what about space weather? Here are three different types of weather in outer space that can affect us here on Earth.

  • Solar flares: These eruptions of the sun cause large amounts of energy to pour out from the sun. Among other things, these flares can wreak havoc on a satellite’s ability to communicate with earth, disrupting many types of communication systems. 
  • Solar wind: As plasma superheats on the sun, it leaves the gravitational pull of the sun and creates a flow of energy that’s called a solar wind. Think of water that boils; as it evaporates it turns to steam that floats away. This “solar steam” causes a host of variables in space weather patterns, just as the wind does here on earth.
  • Solar cycles: Just as the water cycle on Earth is a driving force of our weather, solar cycles do the same in space. Sunspots (pockets on the sun that are cooler than other parts of its surface) can cause fluctuations in weather patterns on the earth too. In fact, a recent article in the journal Science shows that even a 0.1% fluctuation in the sun’s energy can have great impacts on weather here on Earth.

These are three of the more common types of space weather that impact our everyday life here on Earth. To learn more, search the Space Weather Prediction Center from the National Weather Service for a treasure trove of information.

Rainbow Symphony Understands Your Love Of Outer Space

You have an insatiable desire to learn more about outer space, which is likely why you want to learn more about different types of space weather. At Rainbow Symphony, we understand exactly how you feel, because we’re drawn to the stars in much the same way. It’s why we offer items like our eclipse shadestelescopes, and solar filters. Each of these products is specifically designed to give you an affordable way to observe the grandeur of outer space.

Curious about our product offerings? Contact us today so we can answer your questions.