Can Solar Storms Easily Destroy Any Satellite Platform?

| Updated on March 27, 2024

In early 2022, 49 satellites were destroyed in the atmosphere a few days after the launch. But how can this happen? Geomagnetic or solar storms are caused when space weather interacts with the Earth. Fluctuations within the sun cause space weather; the sun blasts protons, electrons, and other such particles into space.

When space weather reaches the Earth, it can trigger several complicated processes that can cause a wide range of problems for anything orbiting the Earth. Therefore, scientists and engineers are always looking for solutions to help defend the satellite platform against them. In this article, we will learn what’s a solar storm and everything related to it.

Space Weather: What are the Causes?

Let us first learn what is a solar storm in space. The sun keeps releasing charged particles into space, known as solar winds. The winds will also carry a solar magnetic field with them. At times, the sun will have strong fluctuations, and resilient bursts of particles will be hurled in any direction. If the Earth is in the direction of the solar wind, you will get a solar storm.

Now, there are two causes of solar storms – the first is the coronal mass ejections – the explosion of plasma that takes place on the sun’s surface. The second is the solar winds that escape through the coronal holes. To identify them, you can look at the sun – you may notice spots of low densities.

The storm’s strength will depend on the speed at which the solar wind or ejected plasma arrives at Earth – the faster speed means a stronger geomagnetic storm. The typical speed of the winds can be 1.4 million km/h or 900,000 m/h. However, the higher speeds can reach five times the speed.

The strongest storm occurred in 1859 and was caused by coronal mass ejection. When the mass of particles reached the Earth, electrical surges shocked the operators of telegraph lines and even set the instruments on fire. Based on research, it has been found that the estimated damages cost roughly $2 trillion.

Earth’s Magnetic Shield

<img alt=”Earth’s Magnetic Shield and Solar Winds”>

As you can guess, these storms can be hazardous for life forms on Earth. Thankfully, the Earth does have a magnetic field to protect us against these dangerous storms.

When the solar wind arrives at Earth, it will hit the magnetosphere – this region of the Earth’s atmosphere filled with ions and electrons. When the magnetosphere meets solar winds, all the momentum, energy, and mass will be transferred to this layer.

The magnetosphere will absorb most of the energy daily. However, the layer can get overloaded with excessive energy transfers during stronger events. It results in the aurora events we see in the northern hemisphere. However, it can also cause several changes in the upper atmosphere that can harm space assets.

Dangers for Satellite Platforms

While the magnetosphere protects us from damaging winds, they can be quite threatening for the satellite platforms. The layer can heat up when the magnetosphere absorbs the energy from the winds. This phenomenon can increase the thermosphere’s density—the thermosphere is the layer of the atmosphere that measures between 80 km and 1,000 km above the Earth’s surface. If the density rises, it can lead to more drag, which can be quite problematic for satellite platforms.

As we mentioned at the article’s beginning, the satellite platforms and sensors were destroyed because of solar storms. When satellites are dropped by rockets in the lower-altitude orbit, they still have to climb another 100-200 km above the surface of the Earth. The satellites utilize onboard engines to overcome this drag and reach the final altitude.

In the case of those destroyed satellites, the geomagnetic storm increased the atmosphere’s density. Since the engines could not overcome this drag, the satellite platforms started falling down and eventually burned up while crossing the atmosphere. This is how solar storm destroys satellites.

Now, there is another way that storm destroys satellites’ orbit; during such storms, the atmosphere contains high-energy electrons; this means that there is a significantly high number of electrons, which can potentially enter the satellite platform. This buildup of electrons can result in small electric discharges, potentially damaging the internal electronics.

Another way how solar storms affect the satellite is that even the mildest solar storms can alter the output signal of the devices. Therefore, it can cause errors in the results. While minor errors are usually fixable and common, there have been instances when these measuring devices have stopped working.

Protecting Against Space Weather

Research is still being done on preventing satellite platforms from getting affected by these solar winds. For instance, developing radiation-resistant materials and other shielding materials can help minimize the damage. These solar storm satellite platforms are still under development and will be soon rolled out in the market.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, solar flares destroy satellite platforms. However, new satellites that are fitted with prevention equipment are under development. Solar storms can be pretty dangerous for satellite platforms and can be disastrous. Therefore, new platforms need to include protective components to help prevent such problems.

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