Potential solar storms may disrupt the satellite network. Here’s how.
Earth has been witnessing an increasing number of solar storms these past couple of months. This is due to the Sun nearing the peak of its solar cycle. This increasing frequency of storms puts satellites at risk.
Solar storms occur due to Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) which are emitted from the surface of the Sun, sending dangerous solar flares hurtling towards Earth. The solar flares then interact with the Earth’s electro-magnetic field and cause geomagnetic storms which not only affect the power grid and causes GPS to crash, but it could potentially wreak havoc in the low-Earth orbit, which is the region of space at altitudes below 1000 kilometers, where hundreds of satellites currently revolve in their orbit around the Earth.
Earlier this year, Elon Musk’s Starlink lost as many as 40 satellites due to a storm which occurred in February, 2022. These satellites were lost shortly after they were put in their orbits by the Falcon 9 rocket, according to interestingengineering.com.
Not only satellites, but the International Space Station could also face a potential collision with space debris due to a solar storm. The objects near Earth in space are tracked by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network (SSN) which currently tracks nearly 20,000 objects larger than 10 centimeters in low Earth orbit. The SSN keeps a record of their current position as well as their trajectories.
Not all but only a handful of the objects in the low Earth orbit are satellites currently in function. The rest of the low Earth orbit is filled by defunct satellites, empty rocket stages, space debris from collisions and more. When a satellite gets close to space debris, the respective organisation in control of the satellite adjusts its course to prevent collision. However, solar storms make this task difficult.
Tom Berger, a solar physicist and director of the Space Weather Technology Center at the University of Colorado told Space.com, “In the largest storms, the errors in the orbital trajectories become so large that, essentially, the catalog of orbital objects is invalidated.”
“The objects can be tens of kilometers away from the positions last located by radar. They are essentially lost, and the only solution is to find them again with radar.”