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Solar Storms Caused Recent Satellite Malfunctions Affecting TV and Internet Signals

By Julie S | Sep 17, 2013 09:35 AM EDT

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Solar storms carrying highly charged matter emitted could have caused the recent malfunctions of satellites affecting TV and Internet signals. “Solar storms" occur when the sun shoots solar flares, circular mass ejections, and other weather incidences in the outer space.

 MIT scientists analyzed the weather conditions in space that have impacted the operations of eight geostationary satellites to fail 26 times. These satellites were owned by British firm Inmarsat.

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These geostationary satellites follow a similar rotation rate of the Earth. This allows them to consistently maintain their place relative to Earth.

It was found that the satellite malfunctions during the years 1996 to 2012 were overlapping with solar storms. The events were characterized by hyperactive particle flow in the solar cycle's declining stages.

These satellites composed of very sensitive electronics are covered with protective armor in several layers. However, these shields weaken over time because of radiation, causing its components to degrade and its performance to decline.

The researchers believe that the flow of particles have accumulated for several years and caused the amplifiers to be damaged and internal charging to be created in the satellites.

Whitney Lohmeyer, MIT grad student at the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said in a statement, “If a company has invested over $200 million in a satellite, they need to be able to assure that it works for that period of time. We really need to improve our method of quantifying and understanding the space environment, so we can better improve design."

Kerri Cahoy, co-author of the study, also commented that space weather could be more extreme than what engineers usually expect when they work on the satellite design and that there are a lot of ways that charged matter can impact a satellite's electronics. And when an accident happens to the satellites, it is very difficult to investigate what happened and perform analysis.
Thus, the researchers recommend for better space weather assumptions and elevated risk expectations to be made. Lohmeyer adds, "If we can understand how the environment affects these satellites, and we can design to improve the satellites to be more tolerant, then it would be very beneficial not just in cost, but also in efficiency."

The study was published in the online journal Space Weather.

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