Dodging the solar storms

While last months solar flares may have passed without too much incident, we’re currently heading into the most volatile period of the sun’s 11-year cycle. The solar maxim sees our nearest star getting a bit ‘grumpy’ and belching out plasma and gamma radiation bursts at an alarming rate. Scientists say that this year’s events could be some of the biggest in years.

Solar storms are nothing new. With an every increasing understanding of astronomy, modern satellites and super telescopes, its relatively easy to predict when these periods of heightened activity will occur. But, with an ever increasing reliance on satellite broadband communications, we have to ensure vital services are protected.

Did the Mayans get it right?

Before we all start thinking that perhaps the Mayans were right about 2012, there’s a lot going on to improve our understanding of solar weather.

A team led by researchers from the British Antarctic Survey and made up of some of the best minds in the business have come up with a way to protect our vital satellite network. They intend to use data from ground-based monitoring equipment and the satellites themselves to take measurements of the Earth’s magnetic field and forecast any changes in radiation.

By doing this, they hope to set up an ‘early warning system’ for satellite operators, where, along with the data collected by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory Satellite and other birds, they should be able to predict periods of increased solar activity. Operators would then be able to move the satellites out of harms way, temporarily power them down or even fold the wings away.

GPS satellites are particularly vulnerable because their orbital patterns are closer to the earth and take them through the unpredictable magnetic Van Allen belt. Here, radiation levels are much higher than in geostationary orbit, making them particularly vulnerable to fluctuations caused by a petulant sun going through its 11-year cycle.

The perfect solar storm

The risk of solar storms is set to increase over the next 12 months, making forecasting and advance warning essential. The forecast system is costing some £2.5m ($3.39m) which when you compare it to the billions of pounds worth of hardware floating above our heads is tiny. A ‘superstorm’ like the one seen in 1859 could wreak havoc not just on communications systems on the ground, but on satellites too. Scientists predict that a violent solar storm could do as much as £30billion worth of damage in one day.

Satellite operators obviously take precautions, but the truth is that protecting delicate electronic equipment against the rigours of space travel is difficult. It seems that as our reliance on space-based technology continues to grow, we are all going to be taking far more of an interest in the ‘space weather forecast’, particularly during periods of high solar activity.

Sun spots could become as familiar to us as clouds, pollen counts and ‘feels like’ forecasts, and while the new forecast system will only be able to give satellite operators a few hour’s extra notice, it should be enough warning for them to act accordingly.