CURRENT SPACE WEATHER
NO LONGER GEOSTATIONARY, SO MUCH
Wayward ‘zombiesat’ poses risk to other satellites
by Dan Goodin / 3rd May 2010
An out-of-control Intelsat satellite that stopped communicating with ground crews last month poses a threat to other satellites as it wanders about 36,000km above the earth. Dubbed Galaxy 15, the satellite stopped responding to ground controllers on April 5, according to Space.com. Since then, engineers have sent more than 150,000 commands to the roving craft in an attempt to regain control of it. Its most recently reported orbital spot was 133 degrees west longitude 36,000km over the equator. The first satellite that’s likely to face signal interference is the AMC-11, which is owned by SES. Galaxy 15 will enter the AMC-11’s neighborhood on May 23 and will exit it around June 7. May 31 to June 1 will be the riskiest time for AMC-11 customers as its parent, SES World Skies, tries to position it as far as possible from the wayward Galaxy 15 while still allowing it to operate as normally as possible. SES and Intelsat have been meeting since shortly after Galaxy 15 lost contact in an attempt to minimize interference. Galaxy 15 could interfere with other satellites as well. The Galaxy 13 and Galaxy 14 could encounter problems in mid July. Galaxy 15 is just one of many “zombiesats” that wander the geostationary arc after becoming unresponsive. Many eventually drift to one of two libration points located at 105 degrees west and 75 degrees east. More than 160 satellites are gathered at these points, which are the orbital equivalents of rain gutters.
Satellite goes rogue, threatens other spacecraft
by Peter B. de Selding / May 9, 2010
An adrift Intelsat satellite that stopped communicating with its ground controllers last month remains out of control and has begun moving eastward along the geostationary arc, raising the threat of interference with other satellites in its path, Intelsat and other industry officials said. In what industry officials called an unprecedented event, Intelsat’s Galaxy 15 communications satellite has remained fully “on,” with its C-band telecommunications payload still functioning even as it has left its assigned orbital slot of 133 degrees west longitude 36,000 kilometers over the equator. Galaxy 15 stopped responding to ground controllers on April 5. The satellite’s manufacturer, Orbital Sciences Corp. of Virginia, has said an intense solar storm in early April may be to blame. It was launched into space in 2005. The first satellite likely to face signal interference problems from the adrift Galaxy 15 is the AMC-11 C-band satellite owned by SES of Luxembourg and stationed at 131 degrees west, just two degrees away from Galaxy 15’s starting position. Rob Bednarek, chief executive of the SES World Skies division, which operates AMC-11, said Intelsat and SES have been meeting since April 5 to coordinate how to minimize the Galaxy 15 impact on AMC-11’s media customers.
Adrift in space
In an interview Friday, Bednarek said that while it remains unclear whether SES World Skies will be able to avoid a signal interference problem as Galaxy 15 enters the AMC-11 orbital territory, the company has benefited from full disclosure on the part of Intelsat, SES’s biggest competitor. “The cooperation with them really has been very good,” Bednarek said. “We all realize that we could be in the same position tomorrow. We are neighbors in space.” Alan Young, chief technology officer at SES World Skies, said the company’s best estimate is that Galaxy 15 will enter AMC-11’s neighborhood — meaning one-half of one degree distant — May 23. It will continue traveling at its own pace through the AMC-11 slot, exiting on the east around June 7. Young said the period of May 31 to June 1 is going to be the riskiest time for AMC-11 customers as SES World Skies seeks to maneuver AMC-11 to the maximum extent possible out of the Galaxy 15 track while at the same time maintaining links with the company’s AMC-11 customers.
Tobias Nassif, Intelsat’s vice president for satellite operations and engineering, said Friday that the company, in concert with Galaxy 15 manufacturer Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., has sent between 150,000 and 200,000 commands to the satellite in the nearly four weeks since the satellite stopped sending or responding to commands. These communication attempts, the equivalent of mild wake-up calls to return Galaxy 15 to service, have had no effect. As it moved all Galaxy 15 customers onto Galaxy 12, which was pulled into service from another orbital location, Intelsat at first focused on recovering Galaxy 15 to regular service.
Zombie satellites in space
On May 3, Intelsat will play what as of Friday appeared to be its last card by blasting Galaxy 15 with a more powerful signal intended not to salvage the satellite, but to force it into a complete shutdown. That attempt will last about 30 minutes. It will not be repeated, both because a second attempt is viewed as unnecessary — the treatment works or it does not — and because sending out powerful radio frequency signals carries the risk of interfering with other satellites in the area. Even if the May 3 action succeeds, Galaxy 15 will remain a problem as it continues to wander the geostationary arc. But it is a problem that satellite operators know how to deal with. Industry experts say there are several dozen spacecraft, sometimes called “zombiesats,” that for various reasons were not removed from the geostationary highway before failing completely. Depending on their position at the time of failure, these satellites tend to migrate toward one of two libration points, at 105 degrees west and 75 degrees east. Figures compiled by XL Insurance of New York, an underwriter of space risks, say that more than 160 satellites are gathered at these two points, which Bednarek described as the orbital equivalent of valleys. “Unfortunately for us, we were downhill from Galaxy 15 as it rolls toward” the 105 degrees west libration point, Bednarek said.
Satellite signal stealer
Satellites like Galaxy 15 and AMC-11 are so-called “bent-pipe” designs that receive signals from the ground, amplify them on board and redistribute them to customers’ ground antennas. Emptied of its customers — except one, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which uses an L-band payload on Galaxy 15 to guide aircraft landings — Galaxy 15 is no longer broadcasting. But its electronics payload is ready to capture and rebroadcast signals it receives that are intended for other spacecraft. Young said that both SES and Intelsat are fortunate in this case because their two satellites’ customers are mainly media companies using fairly large antennas to communicate with the satellites. During the period of maximum danger for AMC-11, SES expects to be able to reroute customer signals to SES-operated teleports with still-larger antennas to maintain communications links.
Nassif said Intelsat and Orbital Sciences have solicited outside opinions from other satellite manufacturers on possible maneuvers that might return Galaxy 15 to control or force it to shut down. “The fact is that this is the first major anomaly on an Orbital-built satellite,” Nassif said. “Other manufacturers have been through problems and might have something to suggest to us.” Because nothing like this has happened before, Intelsat remains uncertain as to when Galaxy 15, as its Earth sensor realizes it is no longer in the desired position, might lose its Earth-pointing capability. That would lead to its solar arrays losing their lock on the sun. Within hours, the satellite’s batteries would discharge and the spacecraft would shut down on its own.
While cautioning that the company is revising its most-likely-scenario thinking almost on a daily basis as it gets input from Orbital Sciences and others, Nassif said the current estimate is that Galaxy 15 will lose Earth pointing by late July or early August. As luck would have it, that timetable would mean the only other satellites in Galaxy 15’s C-band frequency that face interference issues are owned by Intelsat. After it leaves the vicinity of AMC-11, Galaxy 15 is expected to approach Intelsat’s Galaxy 13 satellite, at 127 degrees west, around July 13. On July 30, it will enter into the Galaxy 14 satellite’s orbital territory at 125 degrees west before heading toward Galaxy 18 at 123 degrees in mid-August. “We are in regular contact with all our customers of these satellites to keep them apprised of the situation,” Nassif said.
a CARRINGTON EVENT
Report : Severe Space Weather–Social and Economic Impacts / January 21, 2009
Did you know a solar flare can make your toilet stop working? That’s the surprising conclusion of a NASA-funded study by the National Academy of Sciences entitled Severe Space Weather Events—Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts. In the 132-page report, experts detailed what might happen to our modern, high-tech society in the event of a “super solar flare” followed by an extreme geomagnetic storm. They found that almost nothing is immune from space weather—not even the water in your bathroom. The problem begins with the electric power grid. “Electric power is modern society’s cornerstone technology on which virtually all other infrastructures and services depend,” the report notes. Yet it is particularly vulnerable to bad space weather. Ground currents induced during geomagnetic storms can actually melt the copper windings of transformers at the heart of many power distribution systems. Sprawling power lines act like antennas, picking up the currents and spreading the problem over a wide area. The most famous geomagnetic power outage happened during a space storm in March 1989 when six million people in Quebec lost power for 9 hours.
According to the report, power grids may be more vulnerable than ever. The problem is interconnectedness. In recent years, utilities have joined grids together to allow long-distance transmission of low-cost power to areas of sudden demand. On a hot summer day in California, for instance, people in Los Angeles might be running their air conditioners on power routed from Oregon. It makes economic sense—but not necessarily geomagnetic sense. Interconnectedness makes the system susceptible to wide-ranging “cascade failures.” To estimate the scale of such a failure, report co-author John Kappenmann of the Metatech Corporation looked at the great geomagnetic storm of May 1921, which produced ground currents as much as ten times stronger than the 1989 Quebec storm, and modeled its effect on the modern power grid. He found more than 350 transformers at risk of permanent damage and 130 million people without power. The loss of electricity would ripple across the social infrastructure with “water distribution affected within several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in 12-24 hours; loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, fuel re-supply and so on. The concept of interdependency,” the report notes, “is evident in the unavailability of water due to long-term outage of electric power–and the inability to restart an electric generator without water on site.”
The strongest geomagnetic storm on record is the Carrington Event of August-September 1859, named after British astronomer Richard Carrington who witnessed the instigating solar flare with his unaided eye while he was projecting an image of the sun on a white screen. Geomagnetic activity triggered by the explosion electrified telegraph lines, shocking technicians and setting their telegraph papers on fire; Northern Lights spread as far south as Cuba and Hawaii; auroras over the Rocky Mountains were so bright, the glow woke campers who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning. Best estimates rank the Carrington Event as 50% or more stronger than the superstorm of May 1921. “A contemporary repetition of the Carrington Event would cause … extensive social and economic disruptions,” the report warns. Power outages would be accompanied by radio blackouts and satellite malfunctions; telecommunications, GPS navigation, banking and finance, and transportation would all be affected. Some problems would correct themselves with the fading of the storm: radio and GPS transmissions could come back online fairly quickly. Other problems would be lasting: a burnt-out multi-ton transformer, for instance, can take weeks or months to repair. The total economic impact in the first year alone could reach $2 trillion, some 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina or, to use a timelier example, a few TARPs.
What’s the solution? The report ends with a call for infrastructure designed to better withstand geomagnetic disturbances, improved GPS codes and frequencies, and improvements in space weather forecasting. Reliable forecasting is key. If utility and satellite operators know a storm is coming, they can take measures to reduce damage—e.g., disconnecting wires, shielding vulnerable electronics, powering down critical hardware. A few hours without power is better than a few weeks. NASA has deployed a fleet of spacecraft to study the sun and its eruptions. The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), the twin STEREO probes, ACE, Wind and others are on duty 24/7. NASA physicists use data from these missions to understand the underlying physics of flares and geomagnetic storms; personnel at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center use the findings, in turn, to hone their forecasts. At the moment, no one knows when the next super solar storm will erupt. It could be 100 years away or just 100 days. It’s something to think about the next time you flush.
SOLAR FLARES AND YOU
A Super Solar Flare / May 6, 2008
At 11:18 AM on the cloudless morning of Thursday, September 1, 1859, 33-year-old Richard Carrington—widely acknowledged to be one of England’s foremost solar astronomers—was in his well-appointed private observatory. Just as usual on every sunny day, his telescope was projecting an 11-inch-wide image of the sun on a screen, and Carrington skillfully drew the sunspots he saw. On that morning, he was capturing the likeness of an enormous group of sunspots. Suddenly, before his eyes, two brilliant beads of blinding white light appeared over the sunspots, intensified rapidly, and became kidney-shaped. Realizing that he was witnessing something unprecedented and “being somewhat flurried by the surprise,” Carrington later wrote, “I hastily ran to call someone to witness the exhibition with me. On returning within 60 seconds, I was mortified to find that it was already much changed and enfeebled.” He and his witness watched the white spots contract to mere pinpoints and disappear. It was 11:23 AM. Only five minutes had passed.
Just before dawn the next day, skies all over planet Earth erupted in red, green, and purple auroras so brilliant that newspapers could be read as easily as in daylight. Indeed, stunning auroras pulsated even at near tropical latitudes over Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica, El Salvador, and Hawaii. Even more disconcerting, telegraph systems worldwide went haywire. Spark discharges shocked telegraph operators and set the telegraph paper on fire. Even when telegraphers disconnected the batteries powering the lines, aurora-induced electric currents in the wires still allowed messages to be transmitted. “What Carrington saw was a white-light solar flare—a magnetic explosion on the sun,” explains David Hathaway, solar physics team lead at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Now we know that solar flares happen frequently, especially during solar sunspot maximum. Most betray their existence by releasing X-rays (recorded by X-ray telescopes in space) and radio noise (recorded by radio telescopes in space and on Earth). In Carrington’s day, however, there were no X-ray satellites or radio telescopes. No one knew flares existed until that September morning when one super-flare produced enough light to rival the brightness of the sun itself. “It’s rare that one can actually see the brightening of the solar surface,” says Hathaway. “It takes a lot of energy to heat up the surface of the sun!”
Above: A modern solar flare recorded Dec. 5, 2006, by the X-ray Imager onboard NOAA’s GOES-13 satellite. The flare was so intense, it actually damaged the instrument that took the picture. Researchers believe Carrington’s flare was much more energetic than this one.
The explosion produced not only a surge of visible light but also a mammoth cloud of charged particles and detached magnetic loops—a “CME”—and hurled that cloud directly toward Earth. The next morning when the CME arrived, it crashed into Earth’s magnetic field, causing the global bubble of magnetism that surrounds our planet to shake and quiver. Researchers call this a “geomagnetic storm.” Rapidly moving fields induced enormous electric currents that surged through telegraph lines and disrupted communications. “More than 35 years ago, I began drawing the attention of the space physics community to the 1859 flare and its impact on telecommunications,” says Louis J. Lanzerotti, retired Distinguished Member of Technical Staff at Bell Laboratories and current editor of the journal Space Weather. He became aware of the effects of solar geomagnetic storms on terrestrial communications when a huge solar flare on August 4, 1972, knocked out long-distance telephone communication across Illinois. That event, in fact, caused AT&T to redesign its power system for transatlantic cables. A similar flare on March 13, 1989, provoked geomagnetic storms that disrupted electric power transmission from the Hydro Québec generating station in Canada, blacking out most of the province and plunging 6 million people into darkness for 9 hours; aurora-induced power surges even melted power transformers in New Jersey. In December 2005, X-rays from another solar storm disrupted satellite-to-ground communications and Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation signals for about 10 minutes. That may not sound like much, but as Lanzerotti noted, “I would not have wanted to be on a commercial airplane being guided in for a landing by GPS or on a ship being docked by GPS during that 10 minutes.”
Another Carrington-class flare would dwarf these events. Fortunately, says Hathaway, they appear to be rare: “In the 160-year record of geomagnetic storms, the Carrington event is the biggest.” It’s possible to delve back even farther in time by examining arctic ice. “Energetic particles leave a record in nitrates in ice cores,” he explains. “Here again the Carrington event sticks out as the biggest in 500 years and nearly twice as big as the runner-up.” These statistics suggest that Carrington flares are once in a half-millennium events. The statistics are far from solid, however, and Hathaway cautions that we don’t understand flares well enough to rule out a repeat in our lifetime.
And what then?
Lanzerotti points out that as electronic technologies have become more sophisticated and more embedded into everyday life, they have also become more vulnerable to solar activity. On Earth, power lines and long-distance telephone cables might be affected by auroral currents, as happened in 1989. Radar, cell phone communications, and GPS receivers could be disrupted by solar radio noise. Experts who have studied the question say there is little to be done to protect satellites from a Carrington-class flare. In fact, a recent paper estimates potential damage to the 900-plus satellites currently in orbit could cost between $30 billion and $70 billion. The best solution, they say: have a pipeline of comsats ready for launch. Humans in space would be in peril, too. Spacewalking astronauts might have only minutes after the first flash of light to find shelter from energetic solar particles following close on the heels of those initial photons. Their spacecraft would probably have adequate shielding; the key would be getting inside in time. No wonder NASA and other space agencies around the world have made the study and prediction of flares a priority. Right now a fleet of spacecraft is monitoring the sun, gathering data on flares big and small that may eventually reveal what triggers the explosions. SOHO, Hinode, STEREO, ACE and others are already in orbit while new spacecraft such as the Solar Dynamics Observatory are readying for launch. Research won’t prevent another Carrington flare, but it may make the “flurry of surprise” a thing of the past.
Bracing the Satellite Infrastructure for a Solar Superstorm
by Sten F. Odenwald and James L. Green / July 28, 2008
As night was falling across the Americas on Sunday, August 28, 1859, the phantom shapes of the auroras could already be seen overhead. From Maine to the tip of Florida, vivid curtains of light took the skies. Startled Cubans saw the auroras directly overhead; ships’ logs near the equator described crimson lights reaching halfway to the zenith. Many people thought their cities had caught fire. Scientific instruments around the world, patiently recording minute changes in Earth’s magnetism, suddenly shot off scale, and spurious electric currents surged into the world’s telegraph systems. In Baltimore telegraph operators labored from 8 p.m. until 10 a.m. the next day to transmit a mere 400-word press report. Just before noon the following Thursday, September 1, English astronomer Richard C. Carrington was sketching a curious group of sunspots—curious on account of the dark areas’ enormous size. At 11:18 a.m. he witnessed an intense white light flash from two locations within the sunspot group. He called out in vain to anyone in the observatory to come see the brief five-minute spectacle, but solitary astronomers seldom have an audience to share their excitement. Seventeen hours later in the Americas a second wave of auroras turned night to day as far south as Panama. People could read the newspaper by their crimson and green light. Gold miners in the Rocky Mountains woke up and ate breakfast at 1 a.m., thinking the sun had risen on a cloudy day. Telegraph systems became unusable across Europe and North America.
The news media of the day looked for researchers able to explain the phenomena, but at the time scientists scarcely understood auroral displays at all. Were they meteoritic matter from space, reflected light from polar icebergs or a high-altitude version of lightning? It was the Great Aurora of 1859 itself that ushered in a new paradigm. The October 15 issue of Scientific American noted that ‘‘a connection between the northern lights and forces of electricity and magnetism is now fully established.” Work since then has established that auroral displays ultimately originate in violent events on the sun, which fire off huge clouds of plasma and momentarily disrupt our planet’s magnetic field. The impact of the 1859 storm was muted only by the infancy of our technological civilization at that time. Were it to happen today, it could severely damage satellites, disable radio communications and cause continent-wide electrical blackouts that would require weeks or longer to recover from. Although a storm of that magnitude is a comfortably rare once-in-500-years event, those with half its intensity hit every 50 years or so. The last one, which occurred on November 13, 1960, led to worldwide geomagnetic disturbances and radio outages. If we make no preparations, by some calculations the direct and indirect costs of another superstorm could equal that of a major hurricane or earthquake.
The Big One
The number of sunspots, along with other signs of solar magnetic activity, waxes and wanes on an 11-year cycle. The current cycle began this past January; over the coming half a decade, solar activity will ramp up from its current lull. During the previous 11 years, 21,000 flares and 13,000 clouds of ionized gas, or plasma, exploded from the sun’s surface. These phenomena, collectively termed solar storms, arise from the relentless churning of solar gases. In some ways, they are scaled-up versions of terrestrial storms, with the important difference that magnetic fields lace the solar gases that sculpt and energize them. Flares are analogous to lightning storms; they are bursts of energetic particles and intense x-rays resulting from changes in the magnetic field on a relatively small scale by the sun’s standards, spanning thousands of kilometers. So-called coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are analogous to hurricanes; they are giant magnetic bubbles, millions of kilometers across, that hurl billion-ton plasma clouds into space at several million kilometers per hour.
Most of these storms result in nothing more than auroras dancing in the polar skies—the equivalent of a minor afternoon rainstorm on Earth. Occasionally, however, the sun lets loose a gale. No one living today has ever experienced a full-blown superstorm, but telltale signs of them have turned up in some surprising places. In ice-core data from Greenland and Antarctica, Kenneth G. McCracken of the University of Maryland has discovered sudden jumps in the concentration of trapped nitrate gases, which in recent decades appear to correlate with known blasts of solar particles. A nitrate anomaly found for 1859 stands out as the biggest of the past 500 years, with the severity roughly equivalent to the sum of all the major events of the past 40 years. As violent as it was, the 1859 superstorm does not appear to have been qualitatively different from lesser events. The two of us, along with many other researchers, have reconstructed what happened back then from contemporary historical accounts as well as scaled-up measurements of milder storms in recent decades, which have been studied by modern satellites:
1. The gathering storm. On the sun, the preconditions for the 1859 superstorm involved the appearance of a large, near-equatorial sunspot group around the peak of the sunspot cycle. The sunspots were so large that astronomers such as Carrington could see them with the naked (but suitably protected) eye. At the time of the initial CME released by the storm, this sunspot group was opposite Earth, putting our planet squarely in the bull’s-eye. The sun’s aim need not be so exact, however. By the time a CME reaches Earth’s orbit, it typically has fanned out to a width of some 50 million kilometers, thousands of times wider than our planet.
2. First blast. The superstorm released not one but two CMEs. The first may have taken the customary 40 to 60 hours to arrive. The magnetometer data from 1859 suggest that the magnetic field in the ejected plasma probably had a helical shape. When it first hit Earth, the field was pointing north. In this orientation, the field reinforced Earth’s own magnetic field, which minimized its effects. The CME did compress Earth’s magnetosphere—the region of near-Earth space where our planet’s magnetic field dominates the sun’s—and registered at magnetometer stations on the ground as what solar scientists call a sudden storm commencement. Otherwise it went unnoticed. As plasma continued to stream past Earth, however, its field slowly spun around. After 15 hours, it opposed rather than reinforced Earth’s field, bringing our planet’s north-pointing and the plasma cloud’s south-pointing field lines into contact. The field lines then reconnected into a simpler shape, releasing huge amounts of stored energy. That is when the telegraph disruptions and auroral displays commenced. Within a day or two the plasma passed by Earth, and our planet’s geomagnetic field returned to normal.
3. X-ray flare. The largest CMEs typically coincide with one or more intense flares, and the 1859 superstorm was no exception. The visible flare observed by Carrington and others on September 1 implied temperatures of nearly 50 million kelvins. Accordingly, it probably emitted not only visible light but also x-rays and gamma rays. It was the most brilliant solar flare ever recorded, bespeaking enormous energies released into the solar atmosphere. The radiation hit Earth after the light travel time of eight and a half minutes, long before the second CME. Had shortwave radios existed, they would have been rendered useless by energy deposition in the ionosphere, the high-altitude layer of ionized gas that reflects radio waves. The x-ray energy also heated the upper atmosphere and caused it to bloat out by tens or hundreds of kilometers.
4. Second blast. Before the ambient solar-wind plasma had time to fill in the cavity formed by the passage of the first CME, the sun fired off a second CME. With little material to impede it, the CME reached Earth within 17 hours. This time the CME field pointed south as it hit, and the geomagnetic mayhem was immediate. Such was its violence that it compressed Earth’s magnetosphere (which usually extends about 60,000 kilometers) to 7,000 kilometers or perhaps even into the upper stratosphere itself. The Van Allen radiation belts that encircle our planet were temporarily eliminated, and huge numbers of protons and electrons were dumped into the upper atmosphere. These particles may have accounted for the intense red auroras seen in much of
5. Energetic protons. The solar flare and the intense CMEs also accelerated protons to energies of 30 million electron volts or higher. Across the Arctic, where Earth’s magnetic field affords the least protection, these particles penetrated to an altitude of 50 kilometers and deposited additional energy in the ionosphere. According to Brian C. Thomas of Washburn University, the proton shower from the 1859 superstorm reduced stratospheric ozone by 5 percent. The layer took four years to recover. The most powerful protons, with energies above one billion electron volts, reacted with the nuclei of nitrogen and oxygen atoms in the air, spawning neutrons and creating the nitrate abundance anomalies. A rain of neutrons reached the ground in what is now called a ground level event, but no human technology was available to detect this onslaught. Fortunately, it was not hazardous to health.
6. Massive electric currents. As the auroras spread from the usual high latitudes to low latitudes, the accompanying ionospheric and auroral electric currents induced intense, continent-spanning currents in the ground. These currents found their way into telegraph circuitry. The multiampere, high-voltage discharges caused near electrocutions and were reported to have burned down several telegraph stations.
When a large geomagnetic storm happens again, the most obvious victims will be satellites. Even under ordinary conditions, cosmic-ray particles erode solar panels and reduce power generation by about 2 percent annually. Incoming particles also interfere with satellite electronics. Many communications satellites, such as Anik E1 and E2 in 1994 and Telstar 401 in 1997, have been compromised or lost in this way. A large solar storm can cause one to three years’ worth of satellite lifetime loss in a matter of hours and produce hundreds of glitches, ranging from errant but harmless commands to destructive electrostatic discharges. To see how communications satellites might fare, we simulated 1,000 ways a superstorm might unfold, with intensities that varied from the worst storm of the Space Age (which occurred on October 20, 1989) to that of the 1859 superstorm. We found that the storms would not only degrade solar panels as expected but also lead to the significant loss of transponder revenue. The total cost would often exceed $20 billion. We assumed that satellite owners and designers would have mitigated the effects by maintaining plenty of spare transponder capacity and a 10 percent power margin at the time of their satellite’s launch. Under less optimistic assumptions, the losses would approach $70 billion, which is comparable to a year’s worth of revenue for all communications satellites. Even this figure does not include the collateral economic losses to the customers of the satellites.
Fortunately, geosynchronous communications satellites are remarkably robust against once-a-decade events, and their life spans have grown from barely five years in 1980 to nearly 17 years today. For solar panels, engineers have switched from silicon to gallium arsenide to increase power production and reduce mass. This move has also provided increased resistance to cosmic-ray damage. Moreover, satellite operators receive advanced storm warnings from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center, which allows them to avoid complex satellite maneuvers or other changes during the time when a storm may arrive. These strategies would doubtless soften the blow of a major storm. To further harden satellites, engineers could thicken the shielding, lower the solar panel voltages to lessen the risk of runaway electrostatic discharges, add extra backup systems and make the software more robust to data corruption. It is harder to guard against other superstorm effects. X-ray energy deposition would cause the atmosphere to expand, enhancing the drag forces on military and commercial imaging and communications satellites that orbit below 600 kilometers in altitude. Japan’s Advanced Satellite for Cosmology and Astrophysics experienced just such conditions during the infamous Bastille Day storm on July 14, 2000, which set in motion a sequence of attitude and power losses that ultimately led to its premature reentry a few months later. During a superstorm, low-orbiting satellites would be at considerable risk of burning up in the atmosphere within weeks or months of the event.
At least our satellites have been specifically designed to function under the vagaries of space weather. Power grids, in contrast, are fragile at the best of times. Every year, according to estimates by Kristina Hamachi-LaCommare and Joseph H. Eto, both at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the U.S. economy takes an $80-billion hit from localized blackouts and brownouts. Declining power margins over the past decade have also left less excess capacity to keep up with soaring demands. During solar storms, entirely new problems arise. Large transformers are electrically grounded to Earth and thus susceptible to damage caused by geomagnetically induced direct current (DC). The DC flows up the transformer ground wires and can lead to temperature spikes of 200 degrees Celsius or higher in the transformer windings, causing coolant to vaporize and literally frying the transformer. Even if transformers avoid this fate, the induced current can cause their magnetic cores to saturate during one half of the alternating-current power cycle, distorting the 50- or 60-hertz waveforms. Some of the power is diverted to frequencies that electrical equipment cannot filter out. Instead of humming at a pure pitch, transformers would begin to chatter and screech. Because a magnetic storm affects transformers all over the country, the condition can rapidly escalate to a network-wide collapse of voltage regulation. Grids operate so close to the margin of failure that it would not take much to push them over.
According to studies by John G. Kappenman of Metatech Corporation, the magnetic storm of May 15, 1921, would have caused a blackout affecting half of North America had it happened today. A much larger storm, like that of 1859, could bring down the entire grid. Other industrial countries are also vulnerable, but North America faces greater danger because of its proximity to the north magnetic pole. Because of the physical damage to transformers, full recovery and replacement of damaged components might take weeks or even months. Kappenman testified to Congress in 2003 that “the ability to provide meaningful emergency aid and response to an impacted population that may be in excess of 100 million people will be a difficult challenge.” A superstorm will also interfere with radio signals, including those of the Global Positioning System (GPS) and related systems. Intense solar flares not only disturb the ionosphere, through which timing signals propagate, but also produce increased radio noise at GPS frequencies. The result would be position errors of 50 meters or more, rendering GPS useless for many military and civilian applications. A similar loss of precision occurred during the October 29, 2003, storm, which shut down the Wide Area Augmentation System, a radio network that improves the accuracy of GPS position estimates. Commercial aircraft had to resort to in-flight backup systems. High-energy particles will interfere with aircraft radio communications, especially at high latitudes. United Airlines routinely monitors space weather conditions and has on several occasions diverted polar flights to lower altitudes and latitudes to escape radio interference. A superstorm might force the rerouting of hundreds of flights not just over the pole but also across Canada and the northern U.S. These adverse conditions might last a week.
Ironically, society’s increasing vulnerability to solar storms has coincided with decreasing public awareness. We recently surveyed newspaper coverage of space weather events since the 1840s and discovered that a significant change occurred around 1950. Before this time, magnetic storms, solar flares and their effects often received lavish, front-page stories in newspapers. The Boston Globe carried a two-inch headline “U.S. Hit by Magnetic Storm” on March 24, 1940. Since 1950, though, such stories have been buried on inside pages. Even fairly minor storms are costly. In 2004 Kevin Forbes of the Catholic University of America and Orville Chris St. Cyr of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center examined the electrical power market from June 1, 2000, to December 31, 2001, and concluded that solar storms increased the wholesale price of electricity during this period by approximately $500 million. Meanwhile the U.S. Department of Defense has estimated that solar disruptions to government satellites cost about $100 million a year. Furthermore, satellite insurers paid out nearly $2 billion between 1996 and 2005 to cover commercial satellite damages and losses, some of which were precipitated by adverse space weather.
We would be well served by more reliable warnings of solar and geomagnetic storms. With adequate warning, satellite operators can defer critical maneuvering and watch for anomalies that, without quick action, could escalate into critical emergencies. Airline pilots could prepare for an orderly schedule of flight diversions. Power grid operators could watch susceptible network components and make plans to minimize the time the grid might be out of commission. Agencies such as NASA and the National Science Foundation have worked over the past 20 years to develop space-weather forecasting capabilities. Currently NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center provides daily space weather reports to more than 1,000 businesses and government agencies. Its annual budget of $6 million is far less than the nearly $500 billion in revenues generated by the industries supported by these forecasts. But this capability relies on a hodgepodge of satellites designed more for research purposes than for efficient, long-term space weather monitoring. Some researchers feel our ability to predict space weather is about where NOAA was in predicting atmospheric weather in the early 1950s. From a monitoring perspective, what are needed are inexpensive, long-term space buoys to monitor weather conditions using simple, off-the-shelf instruments. In the meantime, scientists have a long way to go to understand the physics of solar storms and to forecast their effects. If we really want to safeguard our technological infrastructure, we will have to redouble our investment in forecasting, modeling and basic research to batten down for the next solar tempest.
WAY WORSE THAN LAST TIME
by Jeff Masters / March 31, 2009
Twenty years ago this month, on March 13, 1989, I was aboard NOAA’s P-3 weather research aircraft, bumping through a turbulent portion of a fierce winter storm in a remote ocean area between Greenland and Norway. We were searching for clues on how to make better weather forecasts for the regions of Norway and the northern British Isles battered by these great storms. Our 2-month project, based in Bødø, Norway, was called the Coordinated Eastern Arctic Research Experiment (CEAREX) . Today’s flight took us through the heart of an extratropical storm developing at the edge of the sea ice that covered the ocean waters east of Greenland. As I looked over at the white-capped, forbidding waters of the Greenland Sea, I reflected today’s flight was not particularly dangerous by Hurricane Hunter standards, though the storm’s tropical storm-force winds made the ride a bit rough at times. However, we were a long way from civilization. Should an emergency require us to ditch the aircraft in the ocean or the nearby remote island of Jan Mayen, we’d be tough to find unless we were able to radio back our position before going down. Far from any land areas, our communication life-line to the outside world was HF radio (ham radio), which relied on Earth’s ionosphere to bounce signals off of. Three hours into the flight this life-line abruptly stopped working. “Jeff, can you come up to the cockpit?” Aircraft Commander Dan Eilers’ voice crackled over the intercom. I took a break from monitoring our weather instruments, took off my headset, and stepped forward into the cockpit of the P-3. “What’s up, Dan?” I asked. “Well, HF radio reception crapped out about twenty minutes ago, and I want to climb to 25,000 feet and see if we can raise Reykjavik Air Traffic Control to report our position. We’re flying at low altitude in hazardous conditions over 500 miles from the nearest airport, and it’s not good that we’re out of communication with the outside world. If we were to go down, search and rescue would have no idea where to look for us.”
I agreed to work out an alteration to the flight plan with our scientists, so that we could continue to collect good data on the storm while we climbed higher. The scientists weren’t too happy with the plan, since they were paying $20,000 for this flight, and wanted to stay low at 1,500 feet to better investigate the storm’s structure. Regardless, we climbed as high as we could and orbited the storm, issuing repeated calls to the outside world over our HF radio. No one answered. “I’ve never seen such a major interruption to HF radio!” Commander Eilers said, worriedly. “We can go back down to 1,500 feet and resume the mission, but I want to periodically climb to 25,000 feet and continue trying to establish communications. If we can’t raise Air Traffic Control, we should consider aborting the mission”. I agreed to work with the scientists to accommodate this strategy. They argued hotly against a possible cancellation of this mission, which was collecting some unique data on a significant winter storm. So, for the next four hours, we periodically climbed to 25,000 feet, issuing futile calls over our HF radio. Finally, after an uncomfortable eight hours, it was time to go home to our base in Norway. As twilight sank into Arctic darkness, a spectacular auroral display–shimmering curtains of brilliant green light–lit up sky. It began to dawn on us that the loss of our HF radio reception was probably due to an unusual kind of severe weather–a “Space Weather” storm. An extremely intense geomagnetic storm was hitting the polar regions, triggering our brilliant auroral show and interrupting HF radio communications.
The geomagnetic “Superstorm” of March 13, 1989
As it turned out, the geomagnetic storm of March 13, 1989 was one of the most intense such “Space Weather” events in recorded history. The storm developed as a result of a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) from the sun four days previously. The CME event blasted a portion of the Sun’s plasma atmosphere into space. When the protons and electrons from the Sun arrived at the Earth, the planet’s magnetic field guided the highly energetic particles into the upper atmosphere near the magnetic poles. As a result, the lower levels of the polar ionosphere become very ionized, with severe absorption of HF radio, resulting in my uncomfortable flight over the Greenland Sea with no communications. The geomagnetic storm didn’t stop there–the storm’s charged particles triggered a strong magnetic impulse that caused a voltage depression in five transmission lines in the Hydro-Quebec power system in Canada. Within 90 seconds, automatic voltage compensation equipment failed, resulting in a generation loss of 9,450 MW. With a load of about 21,350 MW, the system was unable to withstand the generation loss and collapsed. The entire province of Quebec–six million people–was blacked out for approximately nine hours. The geomagnetic storm also triggered the failure of a large step-up transformer at the Salem Nuclear Power Plant in New Jersey, as well as 200 other failures on the North American power system. Auroras were observed as far south as Florida, Texas, and Cuba during this geomagnetic “superstorm”.
Solar Maximum is approaching
The sun waxes and wanes in brightness in a well-documented 11-year cycle, when sun spots and their associated Coronal Mass Ejections occur. We just passed through solar minimum–the sun is quiet, with no sun spots. We are headed towards a solar maximum, forecast to occur in 2012. Geomagnetic storms are at their peak during solar maximum, and we’ll have to be on the lookout for severe “Space Weather” starting in 2010. I’ll talk more about severe “Space Weather” storms in my next post, when I’ll discuss the greatest Space Weather storm in recorded history–the famed “Carrington Event” of 1859–and what damages it might wreak were it to happen today. An extraordinary report funded by NASA and issued by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 2008 says that a repeat of the Carrington Event could result in the most costly natural disaster of all time.
PREVIOUSLY on SPECTRE : AURORAL CURRENT
BUT WHY IS IT PRETTY?
STARS HAVE WEATHER
SOLAR FLARES and OTHER PROTECTIONS
Communication technology has expanded enormously in the last 200 years. All forms involving electronic or radio signaling have been affected by space weather events, beginning with the first telegraph outages in 1848, and continuing into the modern age of satellite communication. The timeline below is adapted from events mentioned in the book ‘The 23rd Cycle’ and additional historical resources including newspaper articles and scientific journal notes.
The chronicle of telegraph, short-wave, satellite and electrical outages is a major reminder of the constancy of the space weather impact upon human technology.
November 14, 1837 – Great aurora [American Journal of Science and Arts vol.34 p.286]
November 17, 1848 – During the aurora of November 17, 1848, the clicker of the telegraph connecting Florence and Piza remained stuck together as though it had become magnetized, even though the receiving apparatus was not in action at the time. This could only happen if an electric current from some outside source had flowed through the wires to energize the electromagnet. Telegraphers elsewhere also began to notice that their lines mysteriously picked up large voltages that caused their equipment to chatter as well, with no signal being sent. Much of this was soon attributed to the long wires picking up lightning discharges in their vicinity, and the solution was simply to erect lighting rods on the telegraph poles. [American Journal of Science and Arts 11/17 p.442]
August 28 – September 2, 1859 – hAmerican telegraphists had only a short time to puzzle over atmospheric electricity on their 1000-mile lines when in 1859, the Great Auroras of August 28 and September 4 blazed forth and lit up the skies of nearly every major city on the planet. It was one of the most remarkable displays ever seen in the United States up until that time. These aurora were so exceptional that the American Journal of Science and Arts published no fewer than 158 accounts from around the world describing what the display looked like, the telegraphic disruptions they produced, and assorted theoretical speculations. Normal business transactions requiring telegraphic exchanges were completely shut down in the major world capitals. In France, telegraphic connections were disrupted as sparks literally flew from the long transmission lines. There were even some near-electrocutions. In one instance, Fredrick Royce a telegraph operator in Washington D.C reported that, “During the auroral display, I was calling Richmond, and had one hand on the iron plate. Happening to lean towards the sounder, which is against the wall, my forehead grazed a ground wire. Immediately I received a very severe electric shock, which stunned me for an instant. An old man who was sitting facing me, and but a few feet distant, said he saw a spark of fire jump from my forehead to the shoulder. ”
February 4, 1872 – Great Aurora colored the skies. Again, reports could be found in the newspapers and science journals of powerful voltages induced upon telegraph lines. Seen in Bombay, Sydney, Cape of Good Hope, Tobago, Cuba and Paris. From Havanna a New York Times news corespondent wrote “The number of man and women who read the destruction of the world in this sign, was large and the latter took great care to go to church and pray that the calamity might be averted.” A cable had been laid in 1865 a series of very powerful currents had been recorded up to 2000 volts in strength which produced a distinct arc of flame at a station in Valentia.
October 24, 1870 – Aurora sighted in Clevelend and Cincinnati.[New York Times 10/27 p. 4]
May 28, 1877 – Spectacular aurora seen in New York. Telegraph disruptions and currents detected in New York, Montreal, Boston, Philadelphia and Albany. [New York Times 5/29 p.5]
August 15, 1880 – Magnetic storm causes telegraph problems in American Union Telegraph lines although no aurora was spotted from Boston and Hartford Connecticut. [New York Times, 8/15 p. 8]
February 14, 1892 – Aurora cause some telegraph disturbances. [Boston Globe 2/14 p.2]
April 17, 1882 -New York City was bathed in crimson light bright enough to read newspapers by. Harvard astronomer Henry Draper (1837-1882) observed the light with his spectroscope and found that the greenish-white light consisted of four bright lines of red, green, blue and violet. Mr, Dolan, at that time the Night Superintendent of the Western Union said the interruption of business transactions was so great that even with all its resources, his company was still far behind schedule in getting messages out. In Cleveland Ohio on April 17th, “The electrical condition which produced the extraordinary auroral display last night, more or less seriously effected a great many persons here, particularly those troubled with nervous disorders.” [New York Times 4/17 p.5, 4/18 p. 5]
November 17, 1882 – During the November 17, 1882 Great Aurora, the telephone lines of the Metropolitan Telephone Company refused to work until after 2:00PM. Disruptions were also reported on the cables to Cuba and Mexico. The Chicago stock market was severely affected all day. It produced a compass bearing deflection of nearly 2 degrees, All telegraphic transactions east of the Mississippi River and north of Washington D.C came to a halt. The Chicago stock market was severely affected all day, There was an electric storm which downed the wires and left members of the Board of Trade largely to the devices of their own heads.” [New York Times 11/18 p. 1]
March 30, 1886 – Great Aurora observed in England, China, Japan and India.
February 13, 1892 – Aurora observed in Iowa and New York. Telegraph messages ‘stolen’ by the sun [Boston Globe, 2/12 p. 2]
September 9, 1898 – Aurora reported in Omaha, Tennessee, New York. Western Union telegraph lines were disabled for 1.5 hours in the afternoon, accompanied by electrical shocks at voltages of 280 volts on some wires. [New York Times, 9/10 p.1]
November 2, 1903 – Great Aurora observed in France, New York and California.”Electric Phenomena in Parts of Europe”. The article described the, by now, usual details of how communication channels in France were badly affected by the magnetic storm, but the article then mentions how in Geneva Switzerland, ” …All the electrical streetcars were brought to a sudden standstill, and the unexpected cessation of the electrical current caused consternation at the generating works where all efforts to discover the cause were fruitless”. [New York Times 11/1 p.1, 11/2 p.7]
March 2, 1905 – Major magnetic storm affects telegraph lines from Chicago as far west as Sioux City Iowa. [New York Times 3/3 p.1]
September 25, 1909 – Magnetic storm lasted only about 10 hours and affected a large part of the world. Electrical surges on some lines that exceeded 500 Volts were also reported in telegraph offices in New York City. Brilliant sparks leapt across the gaps when the telegraph keys were opened. The current flowing in the wires also lighted the incandescent resistance lamps in the telegraph circuit. The disturbance started at 7:00 AM and became progressively worse as the day unfolded. A day later, William Marconi, inventor of the wireless telegraph, discussed the interference that the storm had caused over a large part of the world. US and English telegraph systems . “I can’t help being a little glad that the telegraph companies have had this object lesson…Wireless is affected by certain things which do not hinder the ordinary lines, but in this matter we have the advantage” [New York Times, 9/26 p. 12]
May 25, 1915 – A ‘wireless outage’ in Northern Europe. Germany was virtually isolated from the rest of the word via direct transmissions unless the British censors allowed the messages to go over the Allied-controlled cables instead. Thanks to the auroral static disturbances, Germany had to fall back on wireless channels to get her messages out to the rest of the world without going through English censors and Allied-controlled channels.
August 9, 1917 – Earth currents put telegraph system out of service. [New York Times 8/9 p.8]
March 9, 1918 – Aurora helped light up the English landscape enough that seven or eight German bombers were able to stage an air raid over England and bombed parts of London around 11:45 PM. Just before the raiders were spotted flying over Kent in southern England, a bright aurora filled the sky with more light than a full moon
March 22, 1920 – Great Aurora observed in Boston, Washington and Norway.
May 13, 1921 – The prelude to this storm began with a major sunspot sighted on the limb of the sun vast enough to be seen with the naked eye through smoked glass. The spot was 94,000 miles long and 21,000 miles wide and by May 14th was near the center of the sun in prime location to unleash an earth-directed flare. The 3-degree magnetic bearing change among the five worst events recorded ended all communications traffic from the Atlantic Coast to the Mississippi. By 10:00 PM May 15, Washington DC was cut off telegraphically from the rest of the United States. Lines carrying more than 1000 volts of electricity ‘blown out fuses, injured electrical apparatus and done other things which had never been caused by any ground and ocean current known in the past’. The company would probably have to send ships to drag up the undersea cables to repair them. The electrical ocean currents had found the weakest spots in the cable insulation and caused severe damage. Apparently three of the Western Union transatlantic cables were affected. The entire signal and switching system of the New York Central Railroad below 125th street was put out of operation, followed by a fire in the control tower at 57th Street and Park Avenue.
IJanuary 26, 1926 – Aurora seen in Scandinavia causes legal problems in England; “A breakdown of electrical power and light caused considerable inconvenience in Liverpool yesterday Mr. Justice Swift was trying a burglary case when the lights failed, and the hearing proceeded without lights”
October 15, 1926 – This aurora and the accompanying magnetic storm affected Canada and the Northeastern United States, The same evening in Washington, President Coolidge was scheduled to give a speech before the International Oratorical Contest at 8:05 PM, but this speech could not be broadcast to radio listeners from the Washington Auditorium. After 20 minutes, however, conditions greatly improved and the remainder of the program could be transmitted.
April 29, 1937 – Magnetic storm ‘worst in century. Canada telegraph experiences severe disturbances. [New York Times 4/29 p. 23]
January 25, 1938 – British citizens in were dazzled by the biggest display they had seen in 50 years and thought London was aflame. Crowds in Vienna awaiting the birth of Princess Juliana’s baby cheered the January aurora as a lucky omen. People living in Portugal and Gibraltar were especially terrified by the crimson aurora overhead. [Boston Globe 1/26, London Times 1/26-27]
April 16, 1938 – The most powerful magnetic storm experienced since August-September upset compass bearings by an astonishing 5 ½ degrees and caused a 1900-gamma change in earth’s magnetic field – nearly 3%. An initial storm event arrived at 06:00 UT on August 16th and lasted two hours, followed by a second, and much longer storm event that continued for nearly a full day afterwards.
March 24, 1940 – All short-wave traffic and news broadcasts between the United States and Europe was blacked out since 11:00 AM, Postal Telegraph officials reported 200 to 400 volt surges in their service lines, with over 50% of all their lines affected in one way or another. Millions of Easter Sunday calls to Grandma in 1940 were halted between 10:00AM and 4:00PM on March 24. Even the Executive Curator of the Hayden Planetarium, William Barton, had to go on a nationwide radio hookup to explain what was going on. [New York Times 3/25 p.1, 3/26 p.18]
July 6, 1941 – Short wave blackouts during World War II
September 18, 1941 – This storm had the misfortune of occurring during a home game of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Pittsburgh Pirates. During the day, baseball fans expected to hear the entire 4:00 PM broadcast on station WUR by Red Barber. With the game tied at 0-0, the station became inaudible for 15 minutes. When it resumed, the Pirates had piled up not just one, but FOUR runs. Within minutes, thousands of Brooklyn fans had pounded the radio station, demanding an explanation for the ‘technical difficulties’, only to receive the unsatisfactory answer that the sun was to blame. The effects of the ‘sunspots’ also appeared in the by-now usual problems with transatlantic short-wave communication to Europe, which was out for most of the day. Overseas radio blackout lasts 18 hours – CBS/NBC short-wave disruption. [New York Times, 9/18 p.1, 9/19 p.25 9/20 p.19]
July 8, 1943 – A severe short-wave outage blanketed Europe and Moscow for 18 hours,
September 3, 1943 – This troublesome solar flare interfered with the radio transmission of the Allied invasion of Italy.
February 2, 1946 – Solar storm disrupts ships compasses, teletypes spew out gibberish and US to Europe short-wave channels blocked. AT&T land lines were not affected. Worldwide problems reported in Singapore, Cairo, Lisbon, Bombay and South America. Two huge spots on the sun were seen with unaided eye and identified as cause of the outages. [New York Times, 2/3 p. 26 2/8 p.18]
March 27, 1946 – The long-range radio communications from this postwar storm were so badly disrupted by ‘the aurora’ that transatlantic planes were seriously delayed. Thirteen planes operated by major airline companies were held up during the day. Six Europe-bound planes were stalled in Newfoundland, and seven scheduled to leave Shannon westbound. The Civil Aviation Administration credited the problems to auroral conditions that started on Friday, and the conditions that ensued in the ionosphere which prevented proper signal reflection. Spectacular aurora were visible March 23 shortly after sunset, visible from New York and Canada. Crimson arches, curtains and streamers swept the skies. [New York Times 3/24 p. 13, 3/27 p.13]
July 26, 1946 – Aurora observed in Tennessee, Canada and New England. Teletype services were interrupted but for the most part people enjoyed little trouble from this event. [Boston Globe, 7/27 p. 1]. Some snarled radio communications and teletype problems are reported elsewhere [Chicago Tribune, 7/27 p. 5]
July 19, 1947 – A pair of solar flares caused radio fadeouts over Shannon Airport in Ireland, and extensive airplane radio traffic interference
August 20, 1950 – While the Korean War was not yet eight weeks old a solar flare disrupted vital communications for half a day, as well as Associated Press news dispatches and other commercial traffic between the United States, Europe and South America. [New York Times 8/20 p.5]
February 24, 1956 – This Great Aurora included one of the most intense blasts of cosmic rays ever recorded by scientists up until that time. But while scientists and the public were being dazzled above ground, a far more urgent series of events was unfolding beneath the sea. A full-scale naval alarm had been raised for a British submarine, which was thought to have disappeared. The Acheron had been expected to report her position at 5:05 EST while on Arctic patrol. When it failed to do so, emergency rescue preparations were begun. Ships and rescue planes began the grim task of searching the deadly, ice cold waters between Iceland and Greenland, but no trace of flotsam or jetsam from the sub was ever seen. Then, the ‘missing’ submarine turned up four hours later when its transmissions were again picked up. [New York Times 2/24 p.1, 2/25 p.1]
February 10, 1958 – The Great Aurora colored the skies over Chicago and Boston. In a foretaste of what would become a common, and expensive, problem decades later, the Explorer 1 satellite launched two weeks earlier, suddenly lost its primary radio system. The geomagnetic activity knocked out telecommunications circuits all across Canada, and although it was not visible in the New York area, it was so brilliant over Europe it aroused fears of conflagrations. The Monday storm cutoff the United States from radio contact with the rest of the world following an afternoon of ‘jumpy connections’ that ended with a complete black out by 3:00 PM, although contact with South America seemed unaffected. By evening, radio messages to Europe could occasionally be sent and received. Radio and TV viewers in the Boston area, however, were reportedly having their own amusing problems. For three hours, they fiddled with their TVs and radios as their sets went haywire, at times blanking out entirely, or changing stations erratically. Channel 7 viewers began getting Channel 7 broadcasts from Manchester Vermont, while Channel 4 viewers received ghostly blends of the local Boston station and one in Providence, Rhode Island. Viewers had just finished watching the ‘Lawrence Welk Show’ at 9:30 PM and were preparing to watch a nationally-broadcast TV movie ‘Meeting in Paris’ on Channel 4, or listen to a boxing match. What they hadn’t counted on was that they would get to do both at the same time. During a passionate love scene, the audio portion of the movie was replaced by the blow-by-blow details of the boxing match: “Smith gave him a left to the jaw and a short right hook to the button. — But darling we love each other so much. — A left hook to the jaw flattened Smith and he’s down for the count. — Kiss me again my sweet.” [New York Times 2/12 p. 16, Boston Globe 2/11 p.27]
November 1962 – The Telstar 1 satellite suddenly ceased to operate. From the data returned by the satellite, Bell Telephone Laboratory engineers on the ground tested a working twin to Telstar by subjecting it to artificial radiation sources, and were able to get it to fail in the same way. The problem was traced to a single transistor in the satellites command decoder. Excess charge had accumulated at one of the gates of the transistor, and the remedy was to simply turn of the satellite for a few seconds so the charge could dissipate. This, in fact, did work, and the satellite was brought back into operation in January, 1963. [World Book Encyclopedia, 1963 p.461 ‘Year Book:Reviewing Events in 1962’]
March 23, 1969 – [Boston Globe 3/24 p.6]
August 2, 1972 – Great Aurora seen over North America, Scandinavia and USSR, triggered surges of 60 volts on AT&T’s coaxial telephone cable between Chicago and Nebraska. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Reclamation power station in Watertown, South Dakota experienced 25,000-volt swings in its power lines. Similar disruptions were reported by Wisconsin Power and Light, Madison Gas and Electric, and Wisconsin Public Service Corporation. The calamity from this one storm didn’t end in Wisconsin. In Newfoundland, induced ground currents activated protective relays at the Bowater Power Company. A 230,000-volt transformer at the British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority actually exploded. The Manitoba Hydro Company recorded 120-megawatt power drops in a matter of a few minutes in the power it was supplying to Minnesota. [Chicago Tribune 8/3 p.6 8/4 p.3] The Boston Globe [8/5 p. 2] later reports that the ERTS-1 satellite was having sudden power problems in orbit.
March 5, 1981 – Aurora from Colorado.
July 13, 1982 – Major aurora.
March 13-14 1989 – Solar storm triggered the Quebec Blackout that affected 5 million people for up to 12 hours. Geostationary satellites, which used the Earth’s magnetic field to determine their orientation, had to be manually controlled to keep them from literally flipping upside down as the orientation of the magnetic field became disturbed and changed direction. Records show that some low altitude, high-inclination, and polar-orbiting satellites experienced uncontrolled tumbling. [New York Times 3/13 p.1 Boston Globe 3/14 p.6, EOS Transactions 11/14 p. 1479]
September 29, 1989 – A powerful X-ray flare caused power panel and star tracker upsets on NASA’s Magellan spacecraft enroute to Venus. The storm was also detected near Earth by the GOES-7 satellite. The flare was the most powerful one recorded since February 1956.
October 19-26, 1989 – A series of powerful solar flares caused many satellites to experience about five years of solar panel degradation in just seven days. Satellites that were designed to last 10 years, were now expected to last only five before their panels could no longer provide full power. The GEOS-7 weather satellite lost half of its mission lifetime in just this way, from a single solar flare in March 1989. A13-satellite geostationary satellite constellation reported 187 ‘glitches’ with its attitude system.
December 8, 1991 – Major aurora.
January 20, 1994 – A series of coronal holes had just swept across the Sun between January 13-19th. NASA’s, SAMPEX satellite, detects signs of energetic electrons near geosynchronous orbit, whose concentration were rising to a maximum. As the GOES satellites began to accumulate electric charges from the influx of energetic particles, the Intelsat-K satellite began to wobble on January 20, 1994, and experienced a short outage of service. About two hours later, the Anik satellites took their turn in dealing with these changing space conditions, and did not do as well. The satellites experienced almost identical failures having to do with their momentum wheel control systems. The first to go was Anik E1 at 12:40 PM which began to roll end-over-end uncontrollably. The Canadian Press was unable to deliver news to over 100 newspapers and 450 radio stations for the rest of the day, but was able to use the Internet as an emergency back-up. Telephone users in 40 northern Canadian communities were left without service. It took over seven hours for Telesat Canada’s engineers to correct Anik E1’s pointing problems using a back-up momentum wheel system. About 70 minutes later at 9:10 PM, the Anik E2 satellite’s momentum wheel system failed, but its backup system also failed, so the satellite continued to spin slowly, rendering it useless. This time, 3.6 million Canadians were affected as their major TV satellite went out of service. Popular programs such as MuchMusic, TSN and the Weather Channel were knocked off the air for three hours while engineers rerouted the services to Anik E1. For many months, Telesat Canada wrestled with the enormous problem of trying to re-establish control of Anik E2. They were not about to scrap a $300 million satellite without putting up a fight. After five months of hard work, they were at last able to regain control of Anik E2 4 on 21 June 1994. The bad news is that, instead of relying on the satellite’s now useless pointing system, they would send commands up to the satellite to fire its thrusters every minute or so to keep it properly pointed. This ground intervention would have to continue until they ran out of thruster fuel, shortening the satellites lifespan by several years. The good news is that Telesat Canada became the first satellite company to actively stabilize a satellite without using any satellite attitude system. In the end, it would turn out to be something of a Pyrrhic victory because on March 26, 1996 at 3:45 PM, a crucial diode on the Anik E1 solar panel shorted out, causing a permanent loss of half the satellite’s power. Investigators later concluded that this, too, was caused by an unlucky solar event. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 1/31 p. 24 Toronto Sun 1/21 p.7]
January 9, 1997 – The massive cloud launched from the Sun, crossed the orbit of Mercury in less than a day. At a distance of one million miles from the Earth, the leading edge of the invisible cloud finally made contact with NASA’s WIND satellite at 8:00 PM EST on January 9. By 11:30 PM the particle and field monitors onboard NASA’s earth-orbiting POLAR and GEOTAIL satellites told their own stories about the blast of energetic particles now sweeping through the solar system. Interplanetary voyagers would never have suspected the conflagration that had just swept over them. The cloud had a density hardly more than the best laboratory vacuums. Nearly a trillion cubic miles of space were now involved in a pitched battle between particles and fields, shaking the Earth’s magnetic field for over 24 hours. The storminess in space rode the tendrils of the Earth’s field all the way down to the ground in a barrage of activity. Major aurora blazed forth in Siberia, Alaska and across much of Canada during this long winter’s night. The initial blast from the cloud (astronomers call it a ‘coronal mass ejection’ or CME), compressed the magnetosphere and drove it inside the orbits of geosynchronous satellites, amplifying trapped particles to high energies. Dozens of satellites positioned at fixed longitudes along the Earth’s equator like beads on a necklace, alternately entered and exited the full-bore of the solar wind every 24 hours as they passed outside of the Earth’s magnetic shield. Plasma analyzers developed by Los Alamos Laboratories, and piggybacked on several geosynchronous satellites, recorded voltages as high as 1000 volts, as static electric charges danced on their outer surfaces. It was turning out to be not a very pleasant environment for these high-tech islands of silicon and aluminum. Just as the conditions began to subside, on January 11th, the Earth was hit by a huge pressure pulse as the trailing edge of the cloud finally passed by. The arrival and departure of this cloud would have not been of more than scientific interest, had it not also incapacitated a $200 million communications satellite in its wake at 06:15 EST: Telstar 401. AT&T tried to restore satellite operations for several more days, but on January 17th they finally admitted defeat and decommissioned the satellite. All TV programs such as ‘Oprah Winfrey’, ‘Bay Watch’, ‘The Simpsons’, and feeds for ABC News, had to be switched to a spare satellite, Telstar 402R. This outage affected a $712 million sale of AT&Ts Skynet telecommunications resources to Loral Space and Communications Ltd. [Science News 1/20 p.1]
July 15, 2000. The Bastille Day Storm arrived during the daytime over a beclouded North America. Intensely followed by the news media, it produced only sporadic aurora sightings because by the time it arrived its greatest impact was on the daytime side of earth. The International Space Station loses about 15 kilometers of altitude in its orbit.
March 31, 2001 – This Easter Storm was tracked from cradle to grave by NASA and ESA satellites. The CME emerged from tangled magnetic conditions overlying one of the largest sunspot groups seen in several decades. The sunspot group was the largest seen on the sun in a decade, and produced several powerful X-class flares. It was highly publicized in the news media.
October 29, 2003 – This Halloween Storm spawned auroras that were seen over most of North America. Extensive satellite problems were reported, including the loss of the $450 million Midori-2 research satellite. Highly publicized in the news media. A huge solar storm impacted the Earth, just over 19 hours after leaving the sun. This is probably the second fastest solar storm in historic times, only beaten by the perfect solar storm in the year 1859 which spent an estimated 17 hours in transit.
November 4, 2003 – One of the most powerful x-ray flares ever detected , it swamped the sensors of dozens of satellites, causing satellite operations anomalies, but no aurora. Originally classified as an X28 flare, it was upgrade by OAA scientists to X34 a month later. Astronauts hid deep within the body of the International Space Station, but still reported radiation effects and ocular ‘shooting stars’. Highly publicized in the news media but produced no aurora. It was also not seen as a white-light flare.
November 20, 2003 – No CME was involved in this storm, which appeared after Earth’s passage through a high-speed coronal wind stream. Spectacular aurora were observed across North America, and newspaper accounts abounded.