Incoming Solar Flare Season May Totally Screw Up Satellites, Scientists Warn

A new solar activity cycle that could be more powerful than researchers predicted, could disrupt the normal working operation of satellites.

During a discussion organized by the Secure World Foundation at the 36th Small Satellite Conference on 8 August, a space meteorologist warned in this context that 'The relatively benign conditions of the last several years are coming to an end'.

What you've experienced over the past two years doesn't matter, according to Tzu-Wei-Feng, an astronaut at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC). What you have learned in the last two years will not be applicable for the next five years.

One effect of increased space weather activity is greater drag on satellites as the storm heats and expands the upper atmosphere, increasing its density.  

This was pictured in February when a solar storm caused 38 of 49 newly launched SpaceX Starlink satellites to re-enter, when those satellites' thrusters could not overcome the atmospheric drag created by the storm.

"That storm was actually a minor storm in our catalog. It's not a huge storm," she said. SWPC is working with SpaceX to study the event, including how solar storms affected satellites. 

In addition to evaluating the model, she said SpaceX is providing orbit data from its Starlink satellites. "We're trying to see how we can use this data to improve density estimates."

The increased atmospheric drag also has an impact on space traffic management. "After a storm, in two days everything goes everywhere," she said, because the drag effects between satellites and debris vary. "It's time to start worrying about collisions."

This increase in solar activity not only coincides with a sharp increase in the number of satellites launched, but also comes after the previous 11-year cycle, called Cycle 24 by space scientists, was relatively light. This means that many satellite operators do not experience the effects of an active Sun.

The new Cycle 25, which peaked in the middle of the decade, is likely to be more active. “If you look at the beginning of this year, things are pretty crazy. 

We have a solar flare almost every week,” she said. The current cycle is more trending than forecast, with more in the next several years, And the likelihood of more powerful, solar storms is increasing. "We've already moved past where we predicted at this point."

Solar storms can also disrupt satellite operation or damage components. This can particularly affect SmallSats, which often use commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) electronics that are more sensitive to solar activity than radiation-hardened components which are more expensive and  May take longer to order.

Industry executives at the conference said they had yet to see a major shift from COTS to red-hardened electronics by companies and organizations, driven by concerns about increased solar activity.  

One option for satellite operators, he said, is to use red-hard components on critical subsystems and maintain COTS components on other systems that can handle occasional disruptions.

Feng said, satellite operators cannot ignore the effects of a solar storm. "It's very important that we are all aware of the impact of the space environment, how your satellite is going to reduce this radiation environment and how you are going to reduce the drag effects".