Cold War-era nuclear tests actually changed the space environment around our planet

We're in a bubble!
Image: NASA

Humans change every environment we inhabit on Earth, building cities, clearing forests, growing crops, and living in even the most remote parts of our world.

But now we have evidence that we also affect the vacuum of space around us.

According to new findings, a type of radio communication actually produces something like a bubble of radiation protection around our planet. The study also includes insights from research into how Cold War-era nuclear tests changed the space environment around Earth.

A number of experiments and observations have figured out that, under the right conditions, radio communications signals in the VLF [very low frequency] frequency range can in fact affect the properties of the high-energy radiation environment around the Earth, Phil Erickson, a co-author of the new study appearing the journal Space Science Reviews, said in a statement.

That means that this type of radio signal which is beamed from ground stations to submarines can actually change the way naturally occurring radiation moves around our planet.

It’s becoming ever clearer that humans and our activities on this planet have wide-reaching effects.

The same study detailing the VLF findings also explains that nuclear tests performed by the U.S. and Soviet Union during the late 1950s to early 1960s actually altered space weather charged particles and forms of radiation around Earth that can affect our environment.

The tests were a human-generated and extreme example of some of the space weather effects frequently caused by the sun, Erickson said.

The space weather effects mentioned by Erickson are usually caused by the sun when it emits a huge burst of solar plasma in Earth’s direction. Once that plasma reaches our planet, it impacts our magnetic field.

Sometimes during solar storms, bits of charged particles manage to make it through the magnetic field, only to collide with our upper atmosphere, where they encounter neutral particles, creating the auroras. The most extreme of these storms can also have ill effects on the electrical grid, disrupting power supplies to people on Earth.

Some Cold War tests created auroras and even affected satellites above test sites, showing just how much we can affect not only the Earth but the space surrounding it.

If scientists figure out some way to harness that power, they might be able to actually help guard the Earth against harmful, natural particles, mitigating the worst effects of space weather.

If we understand what happened in the somewhat controlled and extreme event that was caused by one of these man-made events, we can more easily understand the natural variation in the near-space environment,” Erickson said.

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