The Effects of Solar Weather on Satellites

While the solar effects of the sun can have an impact on satellite activity, the reality is that it rarely happens.  But this does not mean that we should not be prepared for it.

That is the theme of a recent white paper titled “Solar Weather Effects on Satellites,” that I recently published. Over the past 50 years only a handful of satellites have succumbed to solar weather, as most satellites are designed to withstand any kind of solar flare.

In order to ensure continuity of service, many satellite operators are hedging their bets by focusing on the four elements of solar weather that can affect satellite communications, which are solar wind, coronal holes, coronal mass ejections (CME's) and solar flares.

Here are some other key points from my white paper:

  • The goal in terms of space infrastructure has been to identify and effectively counter the sun's link to so-called single-event upsets (SEUs), which happen whenever the performance of one or more spacecraft components abruptly changes without warning.
  • When solar storms erupt, they can bombard a satellite with highly charged particles and increase the amount of charging on a spacecraft's surfaces.
  • The sun is fairly predictable, and sunspot activity takes place in 11-year cycles with the maximum or most intense stage lasting about 2 years, and the least intense stage lasting about 5 years.
  • Since 2006, we have experienced the least active period of major solar weather events in recent history — the sun has been very quiet lately.
  • The disruptive nature of solar weather impacts far more than satellite operations, and adversely affects terrestrial power and communications grids.

As such, a considerable amount of manpower and money has been devoted to monitoring the sun's activity, and more research into solar activity is planned in the future.  Recently there’s been great improvement in the ability to rapidly detect and track solar events using powerful observation and detection systems both on the ground and in space.

Thanks to proper planning, design and execution, we are better positioned to ensure the operational integrity of satellites in the face of solar weather.

If you're interested in more information, you can check out the full white paper here.

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