Extreme solar activities are causing satellites to fall off their orbits

On the bright side, the phenomenon might help clean out space junk.
Loukia Papadopoulos
An orbiting communications satellite.aapsky/iStock

It's a well-known fact that satellites that orbit close to Earth are subjected to the drag of the residual atmosphere, which gradually slows the spacecraft and eventually makes them fall back to the planet, sending them to burn up in the atmosphere. But in the last few years, a strange phenomenon that can be attributed to the sun's mood swings has been making satellites fall out of their orbits at increasingly alarming rates, according to a report by Space.com.

Satellites falling and crashing 10 times faster than before

This series of events have coincided with the onset of the new solar cycle and has resulted in satellites falling and crashing up to 10 times faster than before, a significant increase by all accounts.

"In the last five, six years, the satellites were sinking about two and a half kilometers [1.5 miles] a year," Anja Stromme, ESA's Swarm mission manager, told Space.com. "But since December last year, they have been virtually diving. The sink rate between December and April has been 20 kilometers [12 miles] per year."

Since last fall, our precious life-giving sun has been acting up, generating more and more solar wind, sunspots, solar flares, and coronal mass ejections that have all had a significant impact on Earth's upper atmosphere. All this is a result of the star ending an 11-year solar cycle.

As natural as this process is, it results in mayhem for our satellites.

"There is a lot of complex physics that we still don't fully understand going on in the upper layers of the atmosphere where it interacts with the solar wind," Stromme said. "We know that this interaction causes an upwelling of the atmosphere. That means that the denser air shifts upwards to higher altitudes." 

Denser air always results in increased drag for the satellites that can send some of the lower-orbiting spacecraft crashing to their eventual demise.  

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"It's almost like running with the wind against you," Stromme said. "It's harder, it's drag — so it slows the satellites down, and when they slow down, they sink."

The researcher added that this situation is bound to affect all spacecraft located around the 250-mile altitude. This means even the International Space Station will have to perform more frequent reboots maneuvers to stay afloat, but what about the common satellites that can't undertake such processes?

"Many of these [new satellites] don't have propulsion systems," Stromme said. "They don't have ways to get up. That basically means that they will have a shorter lifetime in orbit. They will reenter sooner than they would during the solar minimum."

Space junk be gone!

One good thing, however, that will come out of this situation is that space junk will likely be cleared out. For sixty years, humans have been launching things to space, giving rise to the problem of space debris that desperately needs to be cleaned out.

Now, this solar phenomenon may just pull most of the junk out of space!

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