(Sen) - Scientists are developing a new method to protect astronauts from the effects of deadly radiation from the Sun by predicting space weather.
They have installed detectors at the South Pole, where more solar particles get through Earth's protective bubble, to test their early warning system.
Solar storms are a major hazard for astronauts and have to be taken ever more seriously as humans seek to spend ever longer in space.
Already the International Space Station is being permanently manned, and China has shown its own determination to put astronauts in space for lengthy missions in future.
Yesterday their Shenzhou IX spacecraft landed safely in Mongolia carrying three taikonauts who docked with and spent time aboard their Tiangong-1 space station.
Their space capsule parachuted to a landing and the crew were swiftly released. Commander Jing Haipeng was first to exit, followed by Liu Wang and China's first female astronaut Liu Yang.
A team led by S. Y. Oj, of Chungnam National University, Daejeon, South Korea, and the University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware, USA, installed detectors outside and inside a research base called the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
The scientists say that the forthcoming solar maximum is set to bring higher rates of flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), putting astronauts at greater risk.
During a solar flare or CME, particles from the Sun can be accelerated to very high energies - sometimes close to the speed of light. Protons with energies surpassing 100 megaelectron volts essentially sandblast everything in their path.
In an expert article for Sen, solar scientist Dr Lucie Green said: "CMEs can head in any direction, including toward the Earth. We have been hit by coronal mass ejections many times in the past and will continue to be hit in the future."
Most of us on Earth are protected by our planet's magnetic field and dense atmosphere. But astronauts in orbit, or people working at high altitudes near the poles, can be exposed to this increased radiation which can potentially cause radiation sickness.
The scientists used two different types of neutron detectors installed at the research base at the geographic south pole to measure the intensity of the much faster gigaelectron volt neutrons which are also produced during a solar storm when protons interact with the atmosphere.
By combining the observations of the two detectors - one located outside, and the other housed inside the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station - they calculated the energy spectrum of the arriving protons.
This allowed them to estimate the far more powerful blast by megaelectron volt protons that were due to arrive later from the Sun. The scientists compared their predictions for 12 solar events against observations actually made by geosynchronous satellites and found good agreement between them.
The scientists say their system provides a warning time of up to 166 minutes which would give astronauts or those aboard high-flying planes over the poles a chance to seek shelter.