Lazy Solar System Is Lazy, Can't Outrun Cosmic Rays

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As you've probably learned in school or through various films and books regarding the "final frontier," space is a dangerous place. Between wandering "extinction level event"-sized asteroids, nearly invisible black holes, and stars exploding all over the place, it's a wonder anything is alive in the big old cosmic soup. And if those things weren't enough, here's something else to worry about: cosmic rays.

In an ideal situation, the sun would be protecting us from potentially harmful cosmic rays by hurtling through space so fast that it created a wake of sorts ahead of itself, physically pushing cosmic clouds, dust, and everything else aside as it went. Unfortunately, our Earth, according to research reported on by New Scientist, isn’t moving fast enough through the galaxy to do that.

It's interesting to note that really, cosmic rays are actually electrically charged particles. As the sun moves through the center of the galaxy, it passes through enormous, galactic clouds of gas and dust that are left in the wake of supernovae (it's plural for supernova, trust me; I didn't know either) that went the same way. Much of this dust and gas charged with electromagnetic radiation.

These irradiated particles are called cosmic rays. Most are common particles we see here on Earth like Helium nuclei or hydrogen protons, with a few wild and crazy things like positrons mixed in. Being immersed in the stuff of the Big Bang has given these common particles a new lease on life as cosmic rays, though.

The best way for the sun to protect us from harmful cosmic rays is to create a shockwave of force as it moves through these clouds of dangerous space gasses. Like a supersonic jet pushes air aside as it flies, the sun could hurtle through the universe at breakneck speed, throwing aside pesky rays like an arrow through water. Unfortunately, our sun is kind of lazy, only moving through its orbit at around 23 kilometers per second; I mean, I think I almost walk that fast, you know?

What this means is there's more of a chance for cosmic rays that are beaming into the galaxy to find their way into our atmosphere and into us. This is bad because that kind of radiation can damage DNA to a significant degree and may have been responsible for early mass extinctions, happening at seemingly regular intervals every 23 million years, according to another report by New Scientist.

Can we speed up the sun's orbit through the Milky Way? It seems unlikely. I'll tell you what; you think of a plan of action to protect us, and I'll work on this tin foil fort.


[New Scientist (1, 2) / Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]

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