Left: A Falcon 9 rocket carries 49 Starlink satellites toward orbit on Feb. 3, 2022. Right: An April 16, 2012 solar eruption is captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.
SpaceX / NASA
The sun has been hibernating – but it’s waking up, and the next few years may see more satellites damaged or destroyed by solar storms than ever before.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is feeling the pinch of that solar threat this week: The company expects to lose nearly a full launch’s worth of Starlink internet satellites after a geomagnetic storm disrupted the Earth’s atmosphere and sent about 40 of the spacecraft to an early, fiery demise.
But these storms are not uncommon, space weather experts explained to CNBC, and are only expected to worsen over the next few years. The sun started a new 11-year solar cycle in December 2019 and is now ramping to a “solar maximum” that is expected to hit in 2025.
“The reason why [solar storms have] not been a big deal is because, for the past three to four years, we’ve been at what we call ‘solar minimum,'” Aerospace Corp research scientist Tamitha Skov told CNBC.
Notably, the recent solar minimum coincides with a massive spike in the number of satellites in low Earth orbit. About 4,000 small satellites have been launched in the past four years, according to analysis by Bryce Tech – with the vast majority of those operating in low orbits.
“A lot of these commercial ventures … don’t understand how significantly space weather can affect satellites, especially these small satellites,” Skov said.
The Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) is seen over the sky in Fairbanks, Alaska, U.S., April 7, 2021, in this picture obtained from social media.
Luke Culver via Reuters
A geomagnetic storm comes from solar wind generated by the sun’s activity. The Earth’s magnetic shield dumps the solar storm’s energy into our planet’s upper atmosphere and heats it up.
“Most people really enjoy it, and they don’t even realize it – because what they’re enjoying is an aurora,” Skov said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration measures geomagnetic storms on an increasing severity scale of G1 to G5. The storm which destroyed the Starlink satellites last week was expected to be a G1, which Erika Palmerio – a research scientist at Predictive Science – explained is both minor and “quite common,” happening as much as 1,700 times in the 11-year solar cycle.
“The G5 is the extreme storm and those ones are way, way more rare. We find about four of them per cycle,” Palmerio said.
Palmerio emphasized that a G5 storm is a threat to things such as electrical grids or spacecraft operations, but not people.
“There are no risks for humans on ground with these storms,” Palmerio said.
The side effect of the jump in atmospheric density is an increased drag on satellites in low Earth orbit, which can reduce a spacecraft’s orbit – or, in the case of the Starlink satellites, cause them to reenter and burn up.
Increased radiation of…
Read More: Why solar geomagnetic storms destroy satellites like SpaceX Starlink