(NaturalNews) Increasingly, because of hyperactivity, scientists believe that high-speed eruptions of super-charged particles from the sun may someday cause increasing problems and failures in the signals from satellites we rely on to watch TV, use the Internet and communicate.
Solar flares, coronal mass ejections and other space weather events generated by the sun, though some 93 million miles (150 km) away, can send highly energized particles speeding towards Earth. These "solar storms" have, in the past, been blamed for disrupting communications systems and damaging 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.
Most of the glitches, from 1996 to 2012, coincided with high-energy electron activity during declining phases of the solar cycle, the study found.
'We really need to improve our method of quantifying and understanding the space environment'
Researchers believe the charged particles could have accumulated in the satellites over a period of time. And, despite the satellites' protective shielding, that buildup most likely caused some internal charging which, in turn, damaged the satellites' amplifiers, which are necessary in order to relay signals back to earth. Over the course of extended missions, the researchers warn this phenomenon could lead to a failure of the satellites' backup amplifiers as well.
"Once you get into a 15-year mission, you may run out of redundant amplifiers," study researcher Whitney Lohmeyer, an 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."
The thing about space weather is that it often resembles weather on Earth - it's not very predictable. And, say researchers, space weather can be much more reactive than what is often predicted by models utilized by engineers who design satellites, according to Kerri Cahoy, one coauthor 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."
The pair's findings suggest as well that some assumptions about solar storms and space weather risks are likely in need of revision. Per Space.com:
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 said.
The team's research is detailed in the journal Space Weather.
Is 'the big one' on its way?
Scientists have been concerned for the past few years that increased solar activity could spell trouble for the world's technology - and that the U.S. would be especially hard hit.
State and federal emergency planners are worried about the possible occurrence of a solar "superstorm" that would cause untold damage to power and communication grids.
Adding to that concern is a recent report by a group of experts in Britain who say that such a storm is not only likely to occur in the short term but is a near-certainty, given the historical cycle of such solar events.
The report about extreme space weather from the Royal Academy of Engineering in London said major solar superstorms generally occur, on average, once every 150-200 years. The group went on to note that the last major solar storm took place in 1859, long before the establishment of modern electrical grids and a century before space travel and satellites.
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