Space storms, and “space weather” in general, pose a hazard to technological systems and humans in space as well as on Earth. The electromagnetic disturbances and particle radiation can cause disruption of satellite operations, communications, navigation, and electric power distribution grids on ground, leading to a variety of societal problems and economic losses.
Why space weather matters
On February 3, 2022, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched 49 Starlink satellites to low-Earth orbit (200-250 km altitude), and they were supposed to be lifted from there to their final orbits at higher altitude. However, the satellites were launched into a waning geomagnetic storm that was soon followed by another one. These storms dumped energy into the upper atmosphere. As the atmosphere was heated, the gas expanded to higher altitudes increasing the atmospheric drag, which was strong enough to de-orbit 40 out of the 49 satellites. This space weather event was a setback to the Starlink program that aims to create an interconnected network with thousands of satellites to relay high-speed internet services around the globe.
How atmospheric density lowers spacecraft orbits. Image credit NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center.
As the storms that caused the de-orbiting were nothing out of the ordinary, and the Solar activity is on the rise, we need better awareness of the space weather hazards as we continue to develop our space-based assets.
The event made the news: Business insider, MIT Technology Review, New York Times, and others.