While to many, solar storms are just auroras in the sky, the reality is when they hit Earth, a nightmarish destruction is created. Space weather expert had this to say about it.
Often, people take solar storms lightly. And why would they not? Most of the time, when there is a solar storm, all people see are the fantastic light shows called auroras in the sky. But the reality of solar storms is way more sinister and dangerous. And there are recent examples to show their impact on human infrastructure. Just last month, 40 out of 49 Starlink satellites sent to the lower orbit by Elon Musk led SpaceX burned down after a solar storm struck Earth. Even more recently, earlier this week an X-class solar flare erupted on the Sun and resulted in temporary shortwave radio blackout on Earth. And this is still just scratching the surface of what a solar storm is capable of. Read on to find out what a space weather expert has to say about the potential danger of a solar storm.
Piyush Mehta, Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, West Virginia University, penned down an article on The Conversation, where he highlighted the dangers of solar storms, also known as geomagnetic storms. “I study the hazards space weather poses to space-based assets and how scientists can improve the models and prediction of space weather to protect against these hazards”, said Mehta. He further described the impact of solar storms saying, “When space weather reaches Earth, it triggers many complicated processes that can cause a lot of trouble for anything in orbit. And engineers like me are working to better understand these risks and defend satellites against them”.
Solar storm can destroy a satellite with ease, says the space weather expert
While geomagnetic storms are not particularly dangerous to us humans or most life forms on Earth due to the planet’s own magnetic field and ozone layer which absorbs most of the harmful radiation, but that does not apply to the satellites above the planet. When a solar storm strikes the Earth, they are the ones who face the brunt of the impact.
The Earth’s magnetosphere (the region of space surrounding Earth where the dominant magnetic field is the magnetic field of the planet) is the one which absorbs most of the electromagnetic energy from the Sun. But during solar storms, there is a huge excess of energy hitting Earth, and as a result, the magnetosphere pushes it outwards. This energy is pushed towards the upper layers of the atmosphere near the poles. While on one hand, it gives rise to auroras or northern lights, on the other hand it charges up the atmosphere in the upper atmosphere.
How a satellite is affected
“When the atmosphere absorbs energy from magnetic storms, it heats up and expands upward. This expansion significantly increases the density of the thermosphere, the layer of the atmosphere that extends from about 50 miles (80 kilometers) to roughly 600 miles (1,000 km) above the surface of Earth. Higher density means more drag, which can be a problem for satellites,” said Mehta.
This is what led to the destruction of the 40 Starlink satellites. The engines in these satellites have enough power to counteract the normal drag in the atmosphere and rise above. But during the solar storm, the drag increased considerably, and the satellites were overpowered by it.
But drag is just one of the ways satellites are affected. “The significant increase in high-energy electrons within the magnetosphere during strong geomagnetic storms means more electrons will penetrate the shielding on a spacecraft and accumulate within its electronics. This buildup of electrons can discharge in what is basically a small lightning strike and damage electronics,” said Mehta.
Once these delicate instruments are damaged, they lead to disruption of communication with Earth. This means no internet service, no mobile phone network, no way to contact an emergency service in case of a fire hazard or medical emergency. Most industries will come to a halt due to lack of connectivity and even hospitals will struggle to be operational. In short, even though the only real damage a solar storm does is to the satellites, indirectly, it can harm a large section of the human population.