Satellite losses show threat solar storms pose to tech

As if we didn’t have enough to worry about: some scientists are warning of the inevitable catastrophic effects on modern life of a large solar storm.

These solar bursts, which eject energy in the form of magnetic fields and billions of tons of plasma gas called “eruptions”, are unpredictable and difficult to anticipate.

The Earth suffers a devastating direct hit every century or two, according to a recent analysis of scientific data and historical accounts. In the past, these were mostly celestial events with spectacular aurora borealis, but with little impact on humanity. Modern technology, however, is vulnerable to shocks from extreme solar storms.

“It’s not as rare as an asteroid or a comet hitting Earth, but it’s something that really needs to be addressed by policy makers,” said Daniel Baker, Distinguished Professor of Planetary and Space Physics at the University of Colorado. “Certainly, in the longer term, it’s not a question of if but when.”

Astrophysicists estimate that the probability of a solar storm capable of causing a catastrophe can reach 12% in a decade.

“It’s only a matter of time,” says Professor Raimund Muscheler, who holds the chair of quaternary sciences in the department of geology at Lund University in Sweden. “You have to be aware of that and you have to calculate the risks and be prepared as much as possible.”

A new study of ancient ice samples by the Swedish scientist concludes that a previously unknown massive solar storm around 9,200 years ago would have crippled communications if it hit Earth in modern times.

“A failure in one type of sector can propagate through the system and affect a lot of other things, and I think that’s probably what worries me the most about storms is that they can be generalized and have consequences in all sorts of systems that we might not otherwise have thought of, Baker said.

FILE – This time exposure image shows a contrail from a cluster of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites passing over Uruguay, about 185 km north of Montevideo, February 6, 2021. Up to 40 internet satellites top SpaceX throughput were knocked out of orbit by a geomagnetic storm shortly after launch.

A relatively minor solar storm, which caused a disturbance in the Earth’s magnetic field, is responsible for the loss of no less than 40 of the 49 Starlink Internet access satellites launched on February 3 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Disturbance phases

When the sun emits energy, it affects the Earth in phases. The first occurs here eight minutes after the solar event 150 million kilometers away, the time it takes light to travel away from the sun.

The initial problem occurs on the daylight side of the planet from early X-rays, which significantly disrupt the ionosphere – where Earth’s atmosphere meets space – and radio communications. They also create additional drag on some satellites, degrading their orbits, which has happened to Starlink satellites.

Within minutes and hours, highly charged particles set off a radioactive storm, posing a danger to astronauts in orbit.

The third phase, known as the coronal mass ejection – explosions of gas and magnetic fields on the surface of the sun – disrupts the planet’s magnetosphere, illuminating the sky and inducing electrical currents on the surface, which can overload power grids and accelerate corrosion of pipelines.

“The geomagnetic storm can actually cause transformers to burn out if not properly shielded,” said Muscheler of Lund University.

FILE - The sun rises over Mount Hood following the biggest solar storm in years, over Portland, Oregon March 8, 2012.

FILE – The sun rises over Mount Hood following the biggest solar storm in years, over Portland, Oregon March 8, 2012.

The electrical industry in North America has taken steps in recent years to strengthen its infrastructure to protect against dangerous surges. US government agencies have a program to deploy emergency transformers to replace those that fail.

“Although the U.S. government has estimated the cost of a severe space weather event in the billions, this worst-case scenario is not generally considered by most policy planners,” said Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, assistant professor in the Department of Science and Technology. university informatics. University of California, Irvine. “In short, the risk is well known, but not always taken into account during design and planning in most cases.”

Long-distance fiber optic and submarine telecommunications cables at higher latitudes, where the Earth is more exposed, can also sustain severe damage.

“The United States is very likely to be disconnected from Europe,” Jyothi wrote in a recent research paper. “Europe is in a vulnerable area but is more resilient due to the presence of more shorter cables. Asia has relatively high resilience, with Singapore acting as a hub with connections to multiple countries .”

The sun frequently throws large flares at Earth, but most aren’t big enough to wreak havoc or hit the planet directly. But, as SpaceX experienced this week, even some of the mildest flares can knock out satellites.

“The timing is unfortunate for SpaceX,” said Bill Murtagh, program coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center. He added that the 1,500 SpaceX satellites already in orbit were not affected.

Any major solar storm poses a threat to Global Positioning System satellites, which provide accurate time signals and precise navigation, essential technology in modern life, from agriculture to aviation.

A big storm can also trigger ozone depletion, which means there are possible effects on Earth’s climate, atmospheric scientists say.

Previous disruptions

Societal reactions to solar outbursts of centuries past now seem strange, although they were sensational events at the time.

When an intense geomagnetic storm hit Earth in September 1859, known as the Carrington Event, telegraph systems across North America and Europe failed and some operators reported receiving electric shocks.

A solar storm in March 1989 caused power outages in Quebec, Canada.

The Halloween storms of 2003 affected more than half of the satellites in orbit and disrupted aviation for more than a day as planes could not be accurately tracked. Electricity service was also cut in parts of Europe for several hours and transformers in South Africa were permanently damaged.

Since the Carrington event, advanced communication has moved from the telegraph to the Internet.

“Are we ready for a Carrington class event? No, we still have work to do,” NOAA’s Murtagh told VOA.

“As the frequency of climate disasters gradually increases, we will be taken by surprise by an extreme solar event that causes significant disruption. Most people alive today have never experienced an extreme space weather event with global impact. in our lifetime,” Jyothi said. from the University of California-Irvine told VOA.

She also warned that solar superstorms could cause large-scale internet outages spanning the globe that could last for several months.

FILE - Sunspots are seen on the sun, August 24, 2015. (NASA photo courtesy of NOAA)

FILE – Sunspots are seen on the sun, August 24, 2015. (NASA photo courtesy of NOAA)

Geomagnetic storms tend to occur more frequently when there are more sunspots (each of those freckles on the sun being roughly the size of the Earth). The sun is heading into a new cycle, which means there is an increasing likelihood of disruptive events as this cycle reaches its predicted peak in July 2025.

“We’re going to see more sunspots, more solar flares, more flares and therefore more effects on technology here on Earth,” Murtagh said.

Intensity levels

Good news: solar scientists predict that this cycle will be less intense than the most active cycles of centuries past.

21st century society, however, seems unprepared for the consequences of cascading interconnected technological failures likely to be caused by future major storms.

“The sun is the giver of life, but it can also be cruel – especially to the technology we rely on for much of what we do today,” Murtagh said.

Congress passed a bill in 2020 directing the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Department of Defense to continue supporting basic research related to space weather.

Some other governments seem less focused on the issue.

Baker recalls a letter he received from a concerned woman in France who contacted officials there for advice on how to prepare for a major geomagnetic storm.

“We suggest you buy a chocolate cake, eat it, and wait for the world to end,” she was told, according to Baker.

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