From meteorites to space junk, there are several things that pose a threat to the satellites in space while they orbit Earth. Solar storms or geomagnetic storms are another such phenomena that can damage or even destroy satellites. Shedding light on the phenomenon, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center explained that a solar storm is basically a major disturbance that occurs in the Earth’s magnetosphere. These solar storms are caused by variations in the solar wind that are responsible for bringing major changes in plasmas, fields, and currents in Earth’s atmosphere. During solar storms, the ionosphere and the upper atmosphere or thermosphere tend to heat up. This increased heat is due to the currents in the ionosphere as well as the energetic particles that precipitate into this layer of the atmosphere.
This, in turn, increases the density and distribution of density in the upper atmosphere causing the satellites in low-earth orbit to experience more drag. However, an increased drag isn’t the only problem that solar winds pose to satellites. This increase in temperature also creates strong horizontal variations in the ionospheric density that can interfere with the electronic equipment on the satellite. It can lead to modification of the radio signals and result in errors in the information provided by the GPS system.
Moreover, solar storms also affect navigation systems like the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). They also pose a threat to the power grid and pipelines by creating harmful geomagnetic induced currents (GICs).
The magnificent Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights are also a result of solar storms and occur due to the interaction between charged solar particles and particles in Earth’s upper atmosphere. On the other hand, solar storms were also the reason behind more than $50 million loss that was incurred by SpaceX this year. The space agency, as part of its ambitious Starlink internet project, had launched a total of 49 satellites. But, most of these were burned up in the atmosphere due to a solar storm.
Tags: Solar storm, Geomagnetic storm, Satellite