[ RadSafe ] The Effects of Space Weather on Aviation

S L Gawarecki slgawarecki at gmail.com
Sun Oct 27 23:42:44 CDT 2013

*Oct. 25, 2013:*  The next time you step onto an airplane, consider the
following:  In any given year, the pilot of your aircraft probably absorbs
as much radiation as a worker in a nuclear power plant.

And you are about to follow him wherever he goes.

The FAA classifies pilots as "occupational radiation workers."  Flying high
above Earth with little atmosphere to protect them, they can absorb
significant doses of cosmic rays and solar radiation. During a typical
polar flight from Chicago to Beijing, for instance, a pilot is exposed to
the equivalent of two chest x-rays.  Multiplied over the course of a
career, this can cause problems such as increased risk of cancer and
possibly cataracts.

Passengers have reason to be concerned, too.

"A 100,000 mile frequent flyer gets about 20 chest x-rays," points out
Chris Mertens, a senior research scientist at NASA Langley Research Center.
"This is true regardless of the latitude of the flights."

It’s worth noting that even people on the ground absorb some radiation.
Cosmic rays and their by-products are so powerful, they can reach all the
way down to Earth’s surface, giving a person at sea level the equivalent of
one chest x-ray every 10 days or so.

On a plane, however, dose rates increase 10-fold or more.  The exposure
depends on factors ranging from the altitude and latitude of the flight
path (polar routes are irradiated most) to sunspot counts and solar
activity (a powerful solar storm can boost radiation levels a
hundredfold).  To help airline companies safeguard passengers and
personnel, NASA is developing an experimental tool to predict exposures in
real time.  Mertens is the PI of the system, called NAIRAS--short for
"Nowcast of Atmosphere Ionizing Radiation for Aviation Safety."

Mertens notes that the number of flights over the poles has skyrocketed in
recent years.  Airlines prefer polar routes for international travel
because they are shorter and have reduced head winds, creating fuel savings
of tens of thousands of dollars per flight.

However, Earth's poles are where the radiation problem can be most severe.
Our planet's magnetic field funnels cosmic rays and solar energetic
particles over the very same latitudes where airlines want to fly.  On a
typical day when the sun is quiet, dose rates for international flights
over the poles are 3 to 5 times higher than domestic flights closer to the

If a flight controller wants to know the situation around the poles *right
now*, NAIRAS can help.  It is, essentially, an online global map of
radiation dose rates for different flight paths and altitudes.  Maps are
produced in near real-time by a computer at Langley, which combines
cutting-edge physics codes with realtime measurements of solar activity and
cosmic rays.

 “We are still in an experimental phase,” he says.  “The ultimate goal of
the NAIRAS effort is to adopt a paradigm similar to terrestrial weather

The value to the airlines is clear.  The ability to fly over the poles can
save $35,000 to $40,000 per flight in fuel costs alone.  On the other hand,
altering course to avoid a polar radiation storm can cost as much as
$100,000.   A forecasting tool like NAIRAS can help the airlines make the
right decision.

Of even greater importance to Mertens is the human factor.  “Back in 2004,
I went to a workshop on space weather and aviation. A pilot from American
Airlines stood up to address the audience: ‘Look,’ he said, ‘we are
classified as radiation workers, we are the most exposed than any other
group, yet we know the least of all the groups.’  That was a turning point
for me.  I wanted to do something to help pilots better understand what
they are flying into.” And so NAIRAS was born.

Mertens and colleagues are about to publish a paper in the journal *Space
Weather* comparing NAIRAS predictions to actual radiation measurements
onboard airplanes.  “The results are encouraging,” he says, “but we still
have work to do.”

For graphics & video, see:


**Susan Gawarecki*

ph: 865-494-0102
cell:  865-604-3724
SLGawarecki at gmail.com

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