Science Daily: Cosmic Rays Hit Space Age High.
ScienceDaily (Sep. 29, 2009) — Planning a trip to Mars? Take plenty of shielding. According to sensors on NASA's ACE (Advanced Composition Explorer) spacecraft, galactic cosmic rays have just hit a Space Age high.
"In 2009, cosmic ray intensities have increased 19% beyond anything we've seen in the past 50 years," says Richard Mewaldt of Caltech. "The increase is significant, and it could mean we need to re-think how much radiation shielding astronauts take with them on deep-space missions."
The cause of the surge is solar minimum, a deep lull in solar activity that began around 2007 and continues today. Researchers have long known that cosmic rays go up when solar activity goes down. Right now solar activity is as weak as it has been in modern times, setting the stage for what Mewaldt calls "a perfect storm of cosmic rays."
"We're experiencing the deepest solar minimum in nearly a century," says Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center, "so it is no surprise that cosmic rays are at record levels for the Space Age."
Galactic cosmic rays come from outside the solar system. They are subatomic particles--mainly protons but also some heavy nuclei--accelerated to almost light speed by distant supernova explosions. Cosmic rays cause "air showers" of secondary particles when they hit Earth's atmosphere; they pose a health hazard to astronauts; and a single cosmic ray can disable a satellite if it hits an unlucky integrated circuit.