A long cold winter could hit space in months bringing record low temperatures, NASA has warned.
That’s the warning from a scientist who fears sunspot activity on the surface of our star has dropped so low that record low temperatures could soon set in.
“We see a cooling trend,” says Martin Mlynczak of NASA’s Langley Research Center.
“High above Earth’s surface, near the edge of space, our atmosphere is losing heat energy.
“If current trends continue, it could soon set a Space Age record for cold.”
Solar minimum can enhance the effects of space weather, disrupt communications and navigation, and even cause space junk to “hang around”, NASA said.
Mlynczak and his colleagues have recently introduced the “Thermosphere Climate Index” (TCI), which measure how much heat nitric oxide (NO) molecules are dumping into space.
The results come from the SABER instrument onboard NASA’s TIMED satellite, that monitor infrared emissions from carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitric oxide (NO).
By measuring the infrared glow of these molecules, SABER can assess the thermal state of gas at the very top of the atmosphere – a layer researchers call “the thermosphere.”
When the thermosphere cools, it shrinks, making the radius of the Earth’s atmosphere smaller.
This means it can delay the natural decay of space junk, resulting in a more cluttered environment around Earth.
“Right now, it is very low indeed,” Mlynczak told Space Weather.
“SABER is currently measuring 33 billion Watts of infrared power from NO. That’s 10 times smaller than we see during more active phases of the solar cycle.”
“The thermosphere always cools off during Solar Minimum. It’s one of the most important ways the solar cycle affects our planet,” explains Mlynczak.
“We’re not there quite yet,” he said of the record cold, “but it could happen in a matter of months.”
The most famous example of a prolonged sunspot minimum is the Maunder Minimum, referring to a period around 1645 to 1715 during which sunspots become exceedingly rare.
Maunder coincided with the middle part of the Little Ice Age, when Europe and North America experienced colder temperatures – fuelling speculation that the two were connected.
However, the prevailing hypothesis for the cause of the Little Ice Age is that it was the result of volcanic action – meaning that a decline in solar activity was not the main cause.
This story originally appeared in The Sun.