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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Space Weather the Cause of Recent Satellite Failures

Solar storms carrying highly charged matter could have caused
the recent malfunctions of satellites affecting TV, GPS/GNSS
and Internet signals.
As reported by Latinos PostTurns out that nasty space weather may be the reason behind a number of television, Internet, and communications outages down here on planet Earth. According to one study in the journal Space Weather, charged particles from space phenomena such as solar flares and geomagnetic storms are causing greater damage to our satellites than previously thought.

By analyzing 26 geostationary satellite failures in eight satellites over 16 years, a team of MIT researchers discovered that the failures tended to happen when there was a high level of electron activity due to phases in the solar cycle. The scientists theorize that a buildup of these charged particles led to the deterioration and ultimate failures of the satellites. These failures can affect satellites in charge of television or Internet signals even though they are traditionally created to last 15 years, creating a communications disruption on the ground.
"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," says Whitney Lohmeyer, a graduate student at MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
"Users are starting to demand more capabilities. They want to start video-streaming data, they want to communicate faster with higher data rates. So design is changing -- along with susceptibilities to space weather and radiation that didn't used to exist, but are now becoming a problem."
A satellite's view of space weather affecting the Earth's
Despite the promising results, the scientists are cautioning against an easy fix. Cosmic weather patterns are more difficult to understand than those linked to our atmosphere, and there are the obvious logistics of repairing something above in space. 
"But space weather is a lot more dynamic than models predict, and there are many different ways that charged particles can wreak havoc on your satellite's electronics," explains Kerri Cahoy, an assistant professor at the MIT Department of Aeronatuics and Astronautics. "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."