Study links space weather to satellite glitches

A study of satellite failures between 1996 and 2012 found that glitches tended to coincide with solar activity. 

NASA/SDO
Sunspot AR1748 erupted with a medium-class M3.2 flare on May 17, 2013.

High-speed eruptions of charged particles from the sun may be to blame for recent failures of satellites that people rely on to watch TV and use the Internet, scientists say.

From 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) away, the sun spawns solar flares, coronal mass ejections and other space weather events, which can send highly energized particles racing toward Earth. Some solar storms have been known to disrupt communications systems and damage satellites.

To better understand these disturbances, a team of MIT researchers investigated the space weather conditions at the time of 26 failures in eight geostationary satellites operated by the London-based company Inmarsat. Geostationary satellites orbit at the same rate as the Earth’s rotation, meaning they always hover above the same location on the planet. [The Sun's Wrath: Worst Solar Storms in History]

Most of the glitches, from 1996 to 2012, coincided with high-energy electron activity during declining phases of the solar cycle, the study found.

The researchers think these charged particles may have accumulated in the satellites over time. Despite protective shielding, the buildup likely caused internal charging that damaged the satellites' amplifiers, which are needed to strengthen and relay a signal back to Earth. Over an extended mission, the researchers warn that this phenomenon could also cause the satellites' backup amplifiers to fail. 

"Once you get into a 15-year mission, you may run out of redundant amplifiers," study researcher Whitney Lohmeyer, a aeronautics and astronautics graduate student at MIT, said in a statement. "If a company has invested over $200 million in a satellite, they need to be able to assure that it works for that period of time. We really need to improve our method of quantifying and understanding the space environment, so we can better improve design."

Space weather can be much more dynamic than predicted by the models engineers use when crafting satellites, explained Kerri Cahoy, a co-author of the study and an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT.

"There are many different ways that charged particles can wreak havoc on your satellite's electronics," Cahoy said in a statement. "The hard part about satellites is that when something goes wrong, you don't get it back to do analysis and figure out what happened."

Lohmeyer and Cahoy's findings also suggest that some assumptions about solar storms and space weather risks may need to be revised. Researchers often take geomagnetic disturbances into consideration when assessing the vulnerability of spacecraft to space weather, according to a statement from MIT. But Lohmeyer found that most of the amplifier breakdowns occurred during times of low geomagnetic activity that would normally be considered safe.

"If we can understand how the environment affects these satellites, and we can design to improve the satellites to be more tolerant, then it would be very beneficial not just in cost, but also in efficiency," Lohmeyer added.

The team's research is detailed in the journal Space Weather.

Follow Megan Gannon on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @SPACEdotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on SPACE.com.

Copyright 2013 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.