Monday, June 27, 2016

Bad Astronomy May Term: Solar Attack

For the fourth day of my Bad Astronomy May Term class my students and I watched Solar Attack.  In Solar Attack the Sun is emitting large blasts of energy in the form of Coronal Mass Ejections (CME).  CMEs are a real thing and do have the energy necessary to affect satellite communications systems.  In a worst case scenario, a CME headed toward Earth could cause problems to Earth's electrical grids, possibly resulting in millions of deaths.  The deaths would not be due to the CME itself, but from the lack of electricity for what some studies show could be ten years.  So CMEs are a real thing and are a concern for people on Earth.  However, Solar Attack gets pretty much all of the science wrong.

Let's start out with some basic science facts.  CMEs send out solar wind particles.  Highly energetic particles with mass.  If Earth is in the path there can be negative effects.  Earth, however, has a magnetic field that acts to deflect these particles from reaching Earth's atmosphere and surface.  These magnetic field lines meet near the poles of Earth.  Particles can get trapped in these magnetic field lines, traveling along the lines, toward the poles where they interact with the Earth's atmosphere and produce lights we know in the north as the Aurora Borealis.  In the south they are called the Aurora Australis.

In rare cases, but cases that have happened, these particles can knock out communication satellites for a temporary period of time.  The movie, however, gets most of this wrong.  Nowhere in the movie do they even mention the magnetic field.  It is completely ignored!  Instead, they discuss how these particles are entering through Earth's ozone hole and punching other holes in the ozone.  So much wrong in this!  Earth's ozone layer absorbs UV radiation from reaching Earth's surface.  Earth's magnetic field stops solar wind particles.  So much wrong!  

In addition, somehow these solar wind particles can knock satellites out of orbit that can come crashing down to the Earth (only on top of large cities!) without burning up at all in the atmosphere!  Again, so much wrong.  The particles could knock out the satellite for a period of time but NOT knock it out of orbit!!!  Even if the satellite did fall out of orbit, it would not crash that quickly.  It's orbit would decay over a period of time and most of it would burn up in the atmosphere.  

Later in the movie the solar wind particles somehow start shooting out asteroid style flaming fire balls.  I don't even know what to say to this!  No, no, no, a thousand times no!!!

How is the problem solved?  Well, the problem is these particles somehow lighting all the methane in Earth's atmosphere into a big fireball.  So the solution is to put out this atmospheric fire by blowing up the north pole with a nuke!!!  A nuke!!!  They are successful, but haven't really addressed the real problem which was stated earlier in the movie.  For some unknown reason, the Sun was sending out CME after CME directly toward the Earth.  So if that's the case, atmospheric fire is solved, but not the next!

Let's get back to the methane.  Right now methane makes up 0.00017% of Earth's atmosphere.  It's a huge problem for global warming, not atmospheric fireballs.  In the movie the content is stated as 5%!!!  5%!!!  I'm not even sure that if we burned every fossil fuel in the planet and released all locked up methane it would come even close to 5%.  That's 29,400 times more methane than currently in the atmosphere!

There are plenty of other horrible science moments in this movie, but those are a couple of the more major ones.  Watch the movie if you want.  It's not that great, although it is better than Solar Crisis, which we watched earlier in the week.  

No comments:

Post a Comment