Sunday, June 21, 2009

Did a solar flare knock Air France 447 out of the sky?

I happened to be watching the National Geographic Channel's "Naked Science" show today. There was a re-run of an episode titled "Earth's Invisible Shield" which I had recorded earlier and was just getting around to seeing. Air France flight 447 was the last thing on my mind. In fact I haven't been following the story in the news at all. Of course it is tragic. But after you've read the headline, what more do you expect to get out of the story? There has been a lot of speculation about the cause of the accident which I won't go into here. I figured that eventually they would find the black box and collect the evidence and come up with a reasonable explanation. Some people have a morbid curiosity to get all the details, but not me.

That was before I watched this Nat-Geo program which was talking about a hole in the magnetosphere over the South Atlantic called the South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA). And bingo I thought "hey, that's where the Air France flight went down". There is even a quote in the show about how this could affect aircraft flying over this region.
Prof. Peter Olson of Johns Hopkins University: "If you happen to take a long commercial jet flight, you would be flying through regions where the magnetic field is weak. And possibly at that altitude increased radiation would impact the airplane."
And folks, the SAA is real. This isn't some disaster theory cooked up by a bunch of doomsday-ers. In fact, when the Hubble Telescope flies over this region NASA has to shut it down to protect its electronics.

Here is a description of the South Atlantic Anomaly from a NASA webpage.
The South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA, the large red area in the image) is a dip in the Earth's magnetic field which allows cosmic rays, and charged particles to reach lower into the atmosphere. This interferes with communication with satellites, aircraft, and the Space Shuttle. While there are theories as to why this occurs, the geologic origin is not yet known. 
So I went to the web and did a Google search figuring that I wasn't the first person that this had occurred to. And I did find an article or two (here, here) making a connection and doing some speculation on the idea, but no one seemed to be getting into the details and trying to prove or disprove the idea. So I kept digging. And what I found is  thought-provoking enough that I decided to publish my results.

First I needed the exact time and location of the accident to see if it was in the area of the South Atlantic Anomaly, and to see if there was any associated solar activity around the time of the crash. And on both accounts it was ding, ding - bingo, bingo.

Take a look at this timeline from BBC of the flight of Air France 447.

Clearly we are in the right area of the South Atlantic. At 0214 GMT on June 1st there is an automated message indicating an electrical fault on the plane. Could this have been caused by a solar flare? Were there any solar flares occurring around this time?

Some people have dismissed this idea offhand because we are in a period of minimal solar activity. You see the sun goes through 11 year cycles of activity and currently we are at the low point in the cycle. But eventually I found an online story that pointed me to Sunspot 1019. Here's a photo of some solar activity associated with this sunspot.

In case you can't read the fine print, this event occurred on May 31, 2009. The same day Air France 447 took off from Brazil. Here are the comments from Pete Lawrence who posted this picture.
"Wow - what a sight greeted me this morning as I set up my h-alpha scope. A huge plume of plasma ending in what looked like an explosive ball. If you've got a solar telescope, take a look, it's changing but still visible."
Notice "Earth to scale" relative to this "huge plume". Now it takes anywhere from 15 minutes to a few hours for the effect of a solar event to effect earth after it has been observed from earth. Remember that light takes about 8 minutes to reach the earth from the sun, so we wouldn't even be able to observe the event until that much time had passed. But the particles associated with the solar flare would presumably travel at a speed less than the speed of light, so they would not impact the Earth until sometime after that.

Here's a view of the sun on the fateful day of May 31 as seen by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a satellite orbiting the sun. (Don't ask me why it's in blue.) Notice the active area in the upper left - that's sunspot 1019.

Fortunately for us earthlings, we are protected from high energy particles emitted by the  sun by Earth's magnetic field. This acts like a shield which deflects these charged particles. If the activity is intense, then some of the particles still get through and most are attracted to the Earth's poles by the Earth's magnetic field. This results in a familiar phenomena known as Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights. (I was fortunate enough to witness an Aurora Borealis once when I was traveling on a plane.)

Here's a video from NASA that shows exactly how this works.

Notice at the end of the video that the large solar flare does not enter the earth's atmosphere directly, but rather is deflected around the Earth and then appears to overwhelm our protective shield. This results in the field collapsing in a sort of short circuit and the particles are then steered to the north and south poles.

Now quite honestly the information on the web is a bit confusing about the effects of a solar flare. Apparently there is a huge burst of radiation accompanied by a stream of high energy particles. The radiation would presumably travel at the speed of light and this includes x-rays, ultraviolet rays and other high energy radiation, while the particles would take longer to arrive. The picture is further confused by the use of the term "cosmic ray". Cosmic rays consist mostly of protons, so this is not really a form of radiation and would not travel at the speed of light. It seems to me that only the particles would be deflected by the earth's magnetosphere, while the radiation would be partially absorbed by the atmosphere. But an jet passenger plane flies pretty high up, in the case of Air France 447 it was at an altitude of about 35,000 ft. at the time of the accident. And that means there is less atmosphere and magnetosphere to shield the plane and its occupants - especially if the plane is an area where there is a hole in the magnetosphere.

Both the high energy radiation and high energy particles would be capable of damaging an airplanes electronics. Even a relatively low level burst could interfere with radio communications and navigation systems which could set off a chain reaction of failures. But I'm assuming that modern aircraft are built to be extremely robust. In most cases there would be a backup system to take over in the case of a failure of a main control system. Of course human technology is not perfect, and just because there is a backup system in place does not mean that a smooth transition from a damaged main system to a backup system is always going to occur.

And then there is the possibility that both the main system and the backup system could fail at the same time. There is nothing a aircraft system designer can do to avoid a catastrophe under these circumstances. Yet if a truly energetic burst of radiation or particles were to hit a aircraft, then it is not out of the realm of possibility that multiple systems would fail simultaneously. In this case the pilot could try to take over manual control of the aircraft, but today's modern design incorporate what is called "fly-by-wire". This means there is no direct mechanical connection between the pilot's control of the airplane and the rudders and other moving parts that control the airplane. In effect when the pilot adjusts the steering wheel of the plane, it is like sending an email across the internet. When the rudder receives the system, another embedded computer has to decode it and then execute the pilot's command. Even if the pilot switches to "manual" control, the signals must still traverse the network and be interpreted by the receiving computer. If the network were to fail or the receiving computer were to fail, then the pilot would lose control of the aircraft. Again, there would be  backup systems for both the communications network and the control computer in the airplanes wings, but if there were multiple simultaneous failures then all bets are off.

Now some of you may be saying "poppycock" at this time, but have you ever heard of a "neutron bomb"? A neutron bomb, also known as an enhanced radiation weapon (ERW), works in exactly this way. It emits a blast of radiation which can knock out nearby electronics. OK, it emits high energy neutrons rather than the high energy protons emitted by a solar flare, but the effect is the same. And because today's high speed electronics rely on smaller and smaller components, they are actually more susceptible to damage from radiation than electronics of the past.

So what was the sequence of events leading to the crash? Here is the sequence of events as reported by the Times Online in a ominously titled article, "Air France 447: The computer crash".
Did the computers wrongly order more, or less, thrust?

What is clear is that the autopilot of AF447 disengaged and massive system failures rapidly followed. One minute later an Acars message reported “multiple faults regarding Adiru”.

Two minutes later flight control primary computer one failed, then flight control secondary computer one. Both those systems, however, have back-ups. Something far more drastic was also happening and the plane was out of control.

Four minutes after the autopilot disengaged, the cabin suddenly depressurised, perhaps with explosive force.
"Massive system failures... multiple faults" - something had severely damaged multiple onboard computers simultaneously. And what about the back-ups? What makes the author assume that under these conditions that the back-ups would be any less susceptible to damage? The article suggests that there may have been a bug in the airplanes system software. You can be sure that there are hundreds of programmers poring over that code now searching for any potential bugs that could have caused this catastrophe. But no amount of redundancy in hardware or software is going to be able to recover when multiple computer systems fail all at once.

By this time you either think this is a plausible cause for the crash, or you have totally dismissed the idea. Well that's you, but the people who are officially investigating this accident should definitely consider this possibility because if it turns out this is the cause then there will be many more aircraft falling mysteriously from the sky over the next few years.

Why? Because not only is the South Atlantic Anomaly getting bigger, but there is also evidence that the Earth's magnetosphere is reducing in strength at an alarming rate. On top of that we are entering into a cycle of high solar activity, which means more solar storms and the resulting bombardment of Earth by high energy radiation and particles.

One obvious effect would be the disruption of global wireless communications and GPS navigation systems. But some scientists have warned that this could even affect the power grid with truly disastrous results. It wouldn't be the first time. Back in 1989 Quebec suffered a total blackout because of transformers that were damaged by the effects of a solar storm. In 1859 a much larger solar storm called the Carrington Event reaked havoc on existing telegraph communications. A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report warns that if such an event occured today, the results would be devastating. The damage to power systems could take months to repair, resulting in huge losses of human life and dealing a multi-trillion dollar blow to the economy. Here's a sample quote from the NAS report titled, "Severe Space Weather Events--Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts".
Historically large [solar-geomagnetic] storms have a potential to cause power grid blackouts and transformer damage of unprecedented proportions, long-term blackouts, and lengthy restoration times, and chronic shortages for multiple years are possible. As Kappenman summed up, “An event that could incapacitate the network for a long time could be one of the largest natural disasters that we could face.” 

Does this mean that I believe the world will end in 2012 from the effects of a catastrophic solar storm? Uh no. My crystal ball says the much more likely candidate is a Near Earth Object" (NEO) such as a comet or asteroid. In fact scientists already have their eyes on one asteroid, Apophis, which is due to have a close encounter with Earth in 2029. In the meantime, be good and don't miss the movie "2012" coming out in November.

And if all of this still seems extremely far fetched then just remember recent events that nobody would have predicted like the 2004 tsunami that killed over 225,000 people or Hurricane Katrina which virtually wiped out New Orleans. Who would have thought those things were possible?

But for those who are eager to see the end of the world, you may be pleased to hear that some scientists interpret the South Atlantic Anomaly as the beginning of a shift in polarity in the earth's magnetic poles. While the polarities are swapping we would expect the magnetosphere to diminish substantially, leaving the whole Earth open to pummeling from cosmic radiation. On average the poles have switched every half million years, and the bad news is that we are about due for the next magnetic flip-flop.

And it's not just our electronics which would be affected. The high energy radiation from space can cause cancer and damage DNA, so I recommend finding a nice cave to call home - and you were worried about global warming.

The next time your having a beer with the guys try throwing this at them to see their reactions. "Did you know that the magnetosphere protects the earths atmosphere from solar radiation which would otherwise strip Earth of its atmosphere like what happened to Mars after it cooled down and lost its magnetic field?" Yeah, that's a great conversation starter.

Cool Summer

All this talk about sunspots got me thinking about this years cool summer. Could this be related to sunspots as well? Specifically, the lack of sunspots. You see as I was investigating sunspot activity for this article what I found out is that other than that one outburst around June 1, the sun has been unusually quiet lately. So I did another web search - this time for sunspots and cool summer. Well, I seem to be in an even more lonely position with regards to this idea than the Air France 447 idea.

But whenever the mainstream media finds it necessary to poo-poo an idea, then you know that you must be on to something.

And then I happened by chance upon the Dalton Minimum. From 1790 to 1830 there was a period of unusually low sunspot activity. Coincidentally global temperatures fell during this same period. So as much as we humans would like to take all the credit for climate change, there are still some factors that are well beyond our control. Perhaps Mother Nature is trying to teach us a lesson in humility.


Anonymous said...

Your not alone. The day after I submitted the information to the FAA that was captured on the day of.

Expect 10x more in the coming years. The higher elevation the worse it will be. There's 2 more holes opening up.

Anonymous said...

I was watching the same episode on Nat. Geo. -them smart people said solar flares over the Atlantic can cause electrical failures. I was thinking about notifying FAA, but seems like other people already have.