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“ Captain. There is a class four ion storm bearing 278 mark 43, heading 095 mark 23 at 25 thousand k.p.s. Our present course will have us reaching the outer edge in 2.7 minutes.”
We’ve all heard this or something similar over the years on Star Trek and various other science fiction shows or movies. But, what is an Ion Storm? Where do they come from? What are they composed of? What makes them so dangerous to starships? What do they look like? And how bad can they get?
The purpose of this bit of geekness is to take a real world and Trek relevant look at this reoccurring plot tool and determine exactly what effect and/or dangers such a phenomenon would actually pose to a Federation Starship.
What is an Ion Storm?
Simply put, ion storms are Coronal Mass Ejection(CME) that make it out into interstellar space. An ion storm isn’t your ordinary CME that generally dissipates within a few hundred AU’s of the source star; no, these are huge CME’s that stay more or less cohesive for hundreds, sometimes thousands of light years and travel through space at an average velocity of 2000 – 12000kps. Velocities up to 28000 have been recorded by Federation ships.
Where do Ion Storms come from?
As stated, an ion storm is a CME; a portion of a star’s outer, plasma atmosphere is blown away due to extreme fluctuation in the stars coronal magnetic field. We see these kinds of things happening to our star, Sol, every eleven years or so and note it primarily as sunspot activity and solar flares.
What are ion storms made of?
Ion storms are made of solar plasma consisting mostly of electrons and protons, magnetic radiation and sometimes heavier materials like helium, oxygen and occasionally iron.
What do ion storms look like?
Depending on severity and overall electron density an ion storm may not even be visible to the human eye. They are most often detected and identified by their large, intense magnetic signature and much lower corresponding mass.
How are ion storms structured?
The initial CME that produces and ion storm follows a basic pattern; the Shock Wave; the Prominence and the Core.
The Shock Wave is magnetic front of the CME.
The Prominence is a zone of high electron density and is the only visible part of the CME.
The Core follows and is a gradual reduction of electron density.
As the CME travels, these feature diminish a bit and the whole become a little more homogenized; the shock wave weakens to a turbulent shock front and instead of being the proverbial ton of bricks it becomes very much like a very turbulent wind, the Prominence and Core blend together becoming a larger area of only slightly diminished magnetic radiation and ionic flux.
How do ion storms relate to storms here on Earth?
Just like on Earth, space, even deep space is filled with wind albeit ‘solar wind’. This is the net effect of millions of stars pouring out their energies and sub-atomic particles as they burn through their life cycle. Since these solar winds come literally from all directions, the net effect is that things out in deep space are pretty calm from a space weather point of view.
An ion storm is much like the thunderstorms that can occur over the Great Plains region of the United States and their severity is just as variable. They often have a very turbulent zone that precedes them followed by the heart of the storm and ending in a trailing off of severity back to a calm state.
Much like storms on Earth, ion storms can either build in intensity as they move through space and devastate other planetary systems or dwindle down to nothing just a few light years away from their originating star.
What makes ion storms so dangerous to starships?
An ion storm’s most devastating feature is its shock front. This is what causes most of the physical damage to a starship. The shock front often obliterates a warp field, dropping the ship violently out of warp. As the shock front is magnetic (in essence a huge electro-magnetic pulse (EMP)) in nature it also often disrupts any magnetic field within the ship including magnetic containment of antimatter; constriction fields inside the warp core and warp plasma conduits; gravity, structural integrity (SIF) and inertial dampening fields (IDF) and their generators; transporters; communications systems and until the advent of Isolinear chips and ODN links, most computer systems and data storage devices.
If the starship manages to survive the turbulent shock front there is still the huge plasma field that follows; high temperatures and intense radiation bombarding the ship and ionic flux coursing over the outer hull like lightning and arcing between the superstructures.
How bad can an ion storm get?
Ion Storms are rated in severity on the Tousey Scale. The Tousey Scale is named for R. Tousey of the Naval Research Laboratory, Washington D.C., North America, Earth; who first observed a CME on 14 December 1971.
Ion storms are rated on this scale from 1 to 7. 1 being the weakest, 7 being the most severe.
T1: Mild magnetic turbulence (< 1% ship wide magnetic fluctuation); minor increase in immediate area radiation (/strong> 1Sv).
Results: Continue normal operations. Course corrections expected, sensor efficiency reduced by 1-5 %. Traversable by all ships.
T2: Mild magnetic turbulence (1– 5% ship wide magnetic fluctuation); minor increase in immediate area radiation (1 - 5Sv).
Results: Yellow Alert. Shields raised to protect against increased radiation
Auxiliary power brought to hot stand-by. Warp travel possible. Traversable by all ships
T3: Moderate magnetic turbulence (5 -10% ship wide magnetic fluctuation); minor increase in immediate area radiation (5 - 10Sv).
Results: Yellow Alert. Shields raised against increased radiation. Auxiliary power brought to hot stand-by. Shields, IDF, SIF increased to 110%. Warp travel possible. Traversable only by starships Escort or larger.
T4: Manageable magnetic turbulence (10- 25% ship wide magnetic fluctuation); minor increase in immediate area radiation (10 - 15Sv).
Results: Yellow Alert. Shields raised against increased radiation. Auxiliary power brought to full operation. Shields, IDF, SIF and magnetic containment increased to 120%. Warp travel not advised.
T5: Severe magnetic turbulence (25 - 50% ship wide magnetic fluctuation); minor increase in immediate area radiation (15 - 20Sv).
Results: Red Alert. Shields raised against increased radiation. Auxiliary power brought to full operation. Shields, IDF, SIF and magnetic containment increased to 150%. Warp travel not possible. Survivable by starships Light Cruiser or larger.
For ship to survive, it must be at a dead stop with all available power applied to shields, IDF and SIF.
T6: Extreme magnetic turbulence (50 - 75% ship wide magnetic fluctuation); Extreme radiation (20 - 25Sv).
Results: Minimum of 90% power loss. Shields, IDF, SIF must be carefully maintained. 95% chance that anything smaller than a San Francisco class starbase will be destroyed. Shields, if maintained will protect crew from radiation for < 1 hour. Survivable by starships Battleship or larger.
For ship to survive, it must be at a dead stop with all available power applied to shields, IDF, SIF and magnetic containment.
T7: Catastrophic magnetic turbulence (75 - 100% ship wide magnetic fluctuation); Radiation increases to immediate lethality (> 25Sv).
Results: Chances are that class M planets will be made inhabitable and artificial structures will be severely damaged or destroyed. No starship has ever survived a T7 Ion Storm.
Any starship that encounters an ion storm of a T4 rating or greater while under warp power will suffer catastrophic damage. The magnetic shock front will immediately collapse the warp field, decelerating the ship to sub-light velocities faster than the IDF and SIF can compensate.
The sudden deceleration will cause all loose objects, including the crew to be thrown into the forward bulkheads, splattering them into chunky salsa. It will cause the aft portions of the ship to collide with the slower forward sections collapsing the ship much like a crushed aluminum beer can. If the shock front hits from either side, the side first hit will be the first to experience the warp field collapse, this will cause the side still at warp(for however briefly) to be sheared away scattering debris across several hundred thousand kilometers.
All organic matter will be vaporized by both the extreme heat and radiation of the storm.