Space storms causing satellite failures that blunt Internet and TVs

MIT say solar flares and geomagnetic storms are the cause of most satellite failures in recent years

Space weather, including solar flares and geomagnetic storms, are knocking out satellites that people rely on to check out their Facebook pages, to tweet and to watch TV.

MIT researchers today said that most of the 26 failures in eight geostationary satellites over the past 16 years can be traced to the effects of space weather.

High-energy electron activity in solar storms may have accumulated in satellites over time, creating internal charging that damages the orbiters' amplifiers, which are responsible for strengthening and relaying a signal back to Earth.

A better understanding of space weather's effects on satellites is needed not just for today's orbiters, but also for the next generation of communications satellites, said Whitney Lohmeyer, a graduate student in MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

"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," Lohmeyer said in a statement.

Geostationary satellites, which orbit at the same rate as the Earth to remain above the same location all the time, are designed to last up to 15 years. Throughout those lifetimes, the satellites may be bombarded by charged particles that are part of solar storms.

The sensitive electronics in most satellites are covered with layers of protective shielding. Over time, though, radiation can still penetrate and degrade a satellite's components and performance, noted MIT.

"Users are starting to demand more capabilities," Lohmeyer notes. "They want to start video-streaming data. They want to communicate faster with higher data rates. So design is changing, along with susceptibilities to space weather and radiation that didn't used to exist, but are now becoming a problem."

Of course, satellites are designed to endure space radiation.

However, MIT noted that radiation levels can fluctuate greatly over time and that there is no solid line of communication between the builders and owners of the satellites and space weather forecasters.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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