Mumbai: Air passengers, beware. Your health and that of the crew is at stake.
The sun is at the peak of its 11-year-old solar cycle and is emitting dangerous X-rays and gamma rays, which can cause serious health complications. Space scientists at the government-aided Indian Centre for Space Physics (ICSP) have written a letter to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), warning it of the dire consequences of the cycle. Such cycles can last up to a year.
“Flares from the sun have increased since April-May,” says the ICSP letter, a copy of which is with dna. Signed by professor Sandip K Chakrabarti, in charge of academic affairs at ICSP, it says the peak activity began some months ago.
“The sun injects huge amount of X-rays and gamma rays which are harmful to humans when the so-called solar flares take place,” the letter states.
Solar flares can have adverse effects on brain activities, including physical, mental and emotional responses. In certain cases, it affects the central nervous system, leading to cancer. Besides, it can cause anxiousness and dizziness as well as affect pregnant women.
Scientists, though, are sceptical. “Yes, the intensity of the rays increases during this period, but the burst lasts for a few seconds or hours. There is no record of air passengers being affected during solar cycles in the past. Even if it happens, India need not worry as it may affect countries like Canada or the Arctic region more because they are near the poles,” said Dr Mayank Vahia, cosmic rays scientist with the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.
Suhas Naik-Satam, programme co-ordinator (scientific), Nehru Planetarium, agrees. “There is nothing to worry about. I have not seen any passenger or crew being affected by solar flares cycles in the past,” he said.
ICSP, which works in association with Isro and Nasa, carried out several balloon-borne experiments in April-May 2013 and were alarmed with the astonishing results. These were presented in the European Space Agency Conference.
Chakrabarti says the study found that even during moderate solar activity, the X-rays of 60-70 kiloelectron-volt energy penetrate deep into the atmosphere at a height of 7-8 kilometres. With aircraft flying 13-14 kilometres above the earth’s atmosphere, they are exposed to harmful rays.
“Even the moderate flares are more than 25 times stronger and their radiation dose is alarming. During certain parts of the day, these rays may be a few thousand times stronger,” Chakrabarti told dna.
The rays cannot be predicted in advance and therefore, nothing can be done about them, the letter says. “The only precautionary measure that the aviation industry can take is to paint the aircraft with a coating that blocks the entry of such rays. Also, if possible, the aircraft should be delayed if the flares are at their worst,” Chakrabarti said.
DGCA chief Arun Misra to whom the letter was addressed was not available for comment.
Space experts said the solar cycle happens every 11 years on an average. The cycle should have ideally happened in 2011, but the increased flares started getting noticed only during the past few months.
In the Western countries, every pilot’s exposure to such harmful rays is recorded and authorities act accordingly.
The pilots are given ultra-long flying hours (16) only once. The rest period is dictated accordingly.
Pilots say flying planes at 30,000-35,000 feet emanates radiation equal to one X-ray per hour.