February 26, 2024

Solar Storms Can Easily Destroy Satellites – A Space Weather Expert Explains the Science

Geomagnetic storms happen when space weather condition hits and engages with the Earth. If Earth takes place to be in the path of the enhanced solar wind produced by one of these occasions and gets hit, you get a geomagnetic storm.
The speed at which the ejected plasma or solar wind arrives at Earth is an important aspect– the much faster the speed, the more powerful the geomagnetic storm. Research suggests that if a geomagnetic storm of this magnitude hit Earth today, it would trigger approximately $2 trillion in damage.
Geomagnetic storms can disrupt the ability of satellites to communicate with Earth using radio waves.

On August 31, 2012, a long filament of solar material that had been hovering in the suns environment, the corona, emerged out into space. The coronal mass ejection, or CME, traveled at over 900 miles per second. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
On February 4, 2022, SpaceX released 49 satellites as part of Elon Musks Starlink web job, the majority of which burned up in the atmosphere days later on. The reason for this more than US$ 50 million failure was a geomagnetic storm brought on by the Sun.
Geomagnetic storms take place when area weather hits and engages with the Earth. Area weather condition is triggered by fluctuations within the Sun that blast electrons, protons and other particles into space. I study the hazards area weather presents to space-based possessions and how scientists can enhance the designs and prediction of space weather condition to safeguard versus these threats.
When space weather condition reaches Earth, it activates many complex procedures that can cause a lot of trouble for anything in orbit. And engineers like me are working to better comprehend these threats and safeguard satellites against them.

The Sun periodically blasts huge amounts of particles into area throughout active events like solar flares and coronal mass ejections.
What triggers area weather condition?
The Sun is always releasing a steady quantity of charged particles into area. If Earth takes place to be in the course of the improved solar wind generated by one of these events and gets hit, you get a geomagnetic storm.
The 2 most common reasons for geomagnetic storms are coronal mass ejections– surges of plasma from the surface area of the Sun– and solar wind that gets away through coronal holes– areas of low density in the Suns external atmosphere.
The speed at which the ejected plasma or solar wind gets to Earth is an important aspect– the much faster the speed, the more powerful the geomagnetic storm. Generally, solar wind travels at approximately 900,000 mph (1.4 million kph). Strong solar events can launch winds up to 5 times as quick.
The strongest geomagnetic storm on record was caused by a coronal mass ejection in September 1859. When the mass of particles hit Earth, they triggered electrical rises in telegraph lines that surprised operators and, in some severe cases, actually set telegraph instruments on fire. Research recommends that if a geomagnetic storm of this magnitude struck Earth today, it would trigger approximately $2 trillion in damage.
The Earths electromagnetic field acts as a guard that absorbs most solar wind. Credit: NASA
A magnetic shield
Emissions from the Sun, including the solar wind, would be incredibly dangerous to any life form unlucky adequate to be directly exposed to them. The good news is, Earths electromagnetic field does a lot to secure humanity.
The very first thing solar wind hits as it approaches Earth is the magnetosphere. This area surrounding the Earths atmosphere is filled with plasma made from ions and electrons. Its dominated by the worlds strong magnetic field. When solar wind strikes the magnetosphere, it transfers mass, energy and momentum into this layer.
The magnetosphere can take in many of the energy from the daily level of solar wind. However during strong storms, it can get overloaded and transfer excess energy to the upper layers of Earths atmosphere near the poles. This redirection of energy to the poles is what results in fantastic aurora events, but it likewise causes modifications in the upper environment that can hurt space properties.
The various layers of Earths atmosphere are all impacted by solar storms in a different way.
Risks to whats in orbit
There a couple of various ways geomagnetic storms threaten orbiting satellites that serve individuals on the ground daily.
When the atmosphere absorbs energy from magnetic storms, it warms up and expands upward. This expansion considerably increases the density of the thermosphere, the layer of the environment that extends from about 50 miles (80 kilometers) to approximately 600 miles (1,000 km) above the surface area of the Earth. Higher density implies more drag, which can be an issue for satellites.
Starlink satellites are launched in batches, and 40 were destroyed in early February because of a geomagnetic storm. Credit: SpaceX
This situation is exactly what caused the death of the SpaceX Starlink satellites in February. Starlink satellites are dropped off by Falcon 9 rockets into a low-altitude orbit, typically somewhere between 60 and 120 miles (100 and 200 km) above the Earths surface. The satellites then use onboard engines to gradually overcome the force of drag and raise themselves to their final elevation of approximately 350 miles (550 km).
The most recent batch of Starlink satellites experienced a geomagnetic storm while still in very low-Earth orbit. Their engines could not get rid of the significantly increased drag, and the satellites started slowly falling toward Earth and ultimately burned up in the atmosphere.
Drag is just one threat that space weather condition presents to space-based properties. The significant increase in high-energy electrons within the magnetosphere during strong geomagnetic storms implies more electrons will permeate the shielding on a spacecraft and collect within its electronics. This accumulation of electrons can discharge in what is basically a little lightning strike and damage electronics.
Penetrating radiation or charged particles in the magnetosphere– even during moderate geomagnetic storms– can likewise alter the output signal from electronic gadgets. This phenomenon can trigger mistakes in any part of a spacecrafts electronics system, and if the error occurs in something important, the whole satellite can fail. Little errors are typically fixable and typical, but total failures, though uncommon, do occur.
Geomagnetic storms can interrupt the ability of satellites to interact with Earth utilizing radio waves. Lots of communications innovations, like GPS, for instance, rely on radio waves. The atmosphere constantly misshapes radio waves by some quantity, so engineers proper for this distortion when developing communication systems. But throughout geomagnetic storms, changes in the ionosphere– the charged equivalent of the thermosphere that covers roughly the same altitude variety– will alter how radio waves travel through it. The calibrations in place for a quiet environment become wrong throughout geomagnetic storms.
This, for example, makes it difficult to lock onto GPS signals and can throw off the positioning by a couple of meters. For many markets– air travel, maritime, robotics, transport, farming, military and others– GPS placing errors of a couple of meters are merely not tenable. Autonomous driving systems will require precise positioning also.
How to protect against space weather
Satellites are critically crucial for much of the contemporary world to operate, and securing space assets from space weather condition is an important location of research study.
A few of the threats can be lessened by shielding electronic devices from radiation or developing products that are more resistant to radiation. There is just so much shielding that can be done in the face of a powerful geomagnetic storm.
The capability to precisely anticipate storms would make it possible to preemptively protect satellites and other assets to a certain extent by shutting down sensitive electronics or reorienting the satellites to be much better secured. However while the modeling and forecasting of geomagnetic storms has substantially enhanced over the previous few years, the forecasts are typically incorrect. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had actually cautioned that, following a coronal mass ejection, a geomagnetic storm was “likely” to happen the day prior to or the day of the February Starlink launch. The mission went ahead anyway.
The Sun resembles a child that typically throws temper tantrums. Its important for life to go on, but its ever-changing disposition make things difficult.
Written by Piyush Mehta, Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, West Virginia University.
This short article was first released in The Conversation.