A massive solar storm may take satellites out of their orbit, including Starlink

Sending satellite operators into a tizzy and spacecraft into the unknown.
Ameya Paleja
Spacecraft in the rays of the Sun.
Spacecraft in the rays of the Sun.3DSculptor/iStock

As the Sun approaches the peak of its solar cycle, solar storms and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are heading our way on a regular basis, pushing us into radio blackouts from time to time. While these are relatively small geomagnetic storms, a large one is long overdue and could do much more than a radio blackout. It can push satellites and space debris out of their known orbits, and it could be weeks before we spot them again, Space.com reported.

Over the past few weeks, we have been reporting activity on the surface of the sun, such as how large sunspots have been appearing and our star has been sending our solar flares. Astronomers have been watching sunspots keenly since they are precursors to turbulent space weather, which can severely impact our communication and navigation systems.

How geomagnetic storms damage satellites

Earlier this year, Elon Musk's SpaceX lost 40 of its Starlink satellites to a geomagnetic storm that hit soon after the Falcon 9 rocket had placed them in their low orbit perigees, the closest point to Earth. The storm that followed prevented SpaceX from raising the orbits of these satellites, which then reentered the atmosphere and burned up.

However, it is not just new satellites that face the brunt of the highly charged storms. The space just above the Earth is filled with all sorts of junk ranging from spent rocket stages to defunct spacecraft and not to forget the tens of thousands of debris from other space collisions that are just floating around.

Satellites, as well as the International Space Station (ISS), are at the risk of colliding with these and often perform collision avoidance maneuvers to prevent a crash. The information on where a piece of space debris or a defunct satellite is orbiting is provided by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network (SSN), which has a database of objects that are larger than four inches (10 cm) and are currently floating in low-earth orbits.

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A powerful solar storm can change that

A powerful solar storm is packed with tons of energy that can displace items in the Earth's atmosphere by even a few miles from their positions, solar physicist Tom Berger told Space.com. While modern satellites are equipped with GPS systems that can quickly broadcast their positions when navigation is back online, space debris has no such self-reporting mechanism.

The SSN works by scanning the skies with radar, and after a powerful solar storm, it might be a few weeks till the radar scans, locates, and classifies the objects again. It is not just the location of the satellites that changes. According to Bill Murtagh of the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), the intense heating of the upper layers of the Earth's atmosphere can drastically change the drag spacecraft are expected to feel at given altitudes.

As SpaceX had shared about the satellites it lost, the geomagnetic storm had increased the drag in the atmosphere by as much as 50 percent, and even after the company maneuvered the satellites to minimize the drag, they were experiencing as many as 40 out of the 49 satellites launched failed to raise their orbits, and the storm wasn't really a big one either.

Busy skies, increased risks

The last major solar storm to hit the Earth was in 2003 when astronomers lost track of hundreds of spacecraft for days together. Back then, the number of objects in space was just a few thousand, and no collisions were reported.

Two decades later, the situation is very different now. The number of objects in low Earth orbit has quadrupled since then, increasing the risk of a space collision. Even though these satellites might be equipped to avoid collisions autonomously, the sheer numbers exponentially increase the risk of an unstoppable cascade of collisions.

Researchers are still trying to understand the impact of changes in space weather on the drag experienced by spacecraft. Berger told Space.com that it might be another five years before science can model this more accurately. But will the billionaire entrepreneurs hold their horses until science is ready or simply light up the night sky with CubeSat constellations to provide high-speed internet?

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