Solar Storm Sends SpaceX Satellites Sinking from the Sky

solar event causes dozens of satellites to burn up in atmosphere

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Space weather ranges from beautiful aurorae to electric disturbances. In our solar system, weather phenomena in outer space are created by the Sun. A solar storm just cost Elon Musk 40 satellites.

Our star with magnetic storms. Plasma flash on the surface of a our star with lot of stars "Elements of this image furnished by NASA
Photo by muratart / Shutterstock

Homing pigeons, dolphins, and whales all have one bizarre trait in common: Their navigational systems go haywire when solar storms strike. Several dozen SpaceX satellites had a far more dire fate last week when a solar storm struck, making the atmosphere denser and pushing them out of orbit. Most burned up in the atmosphere as they careened toward Earth.

Solar storms are occasional but considerable eruptions of electromagnetic radiation given off by the Sun as the result of solar flares. In his video series The Life and Death of Stars, Dr. Keivan G. Stassun, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Vanderbilt University, explains the effects solar storms have on Earth and its inhabitants.

Storm’s A-Comin’

Geomagnetic storms are caused by energetic solar events. In the last 160 years or so, technology has advanced to the point that these solar storms affect them.

“One of the most powerful space weather events ever recorded was on September 1, 1859, named the Carrington Event, after the pioneering solar physicist, Richard Carrington, who spent his life studying the Sun,” Dr. Stassun said. “This event caused a disruption to worldwide telegraph communications. It is reported that some telegraph operators received electrical shocks from their equipment and some short-circuited equipment started fires.”

Likewise, in 1989, a storm occurred that was powerful enough to shut down a Canadian power grid. According to Dr. Stassun, it left some six million people without power for nine hours. Power grids are the most common casualties of solar storms.

“A particularly famous storm occurred on July 14, 2000, the so-called Bastille Day Storm,” he said. “A powerful flare on the Sun launched a coronal mass ejection right at Earth, which impacted the Earth’s atmosphere a day later. Fortunately, there were no major power grid disruptions reported, but the Voyager satellites, then already at the outer reaches of the solar system, recorded that gust even from that great distance, showing that these powerful storms can be a solar system-wide phenomena.”

Have You Tried Turning the Pigeon Off and Back On Again?

“One of the most extensively studied impacts of solar storms on biological life on Earth is the navigational abilities of some animals,” Dr. Stassun said. “Homing pigeons have been shown to have their navigational abilities disrupted, as have dolphins and potentially whales, as well. It has been suggested that this may be caused by minerals in the animals’ heads or beaks being triggered by geomagnetic currents generated by the solar storm.”

Solar storms affect our communications systems at an increasing rate, due to their dependence on satellites in orbit. The most obvious concern is damage to the onboard electronics of communications satellites, but—related to last week’s SpaceX disruption—changing the Earth’s atmosphere is another source of worry.

“When a strong shower of solar energetic particles strike’s the Earth’s atmosphere, those energetic particles deposit their energy into the atmosphere, which has the effect of puffing it out a bit,” Dr. Stassun said. “This puffing of the atmosphere increases the amount of drag on the atmosphere that low-altitude communications satellites experience, which can cause them to prematurely spiral into the atmosphere and begin to burn up.”

Nobody learned that lesson more harshly in recent memory than Elon Musk.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily