High-speed eruptions of charged particles from the sun may be to blame for recent failures of satellites that people rely on to watch TV and use the Internet, scientists say.
From 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) away, the sun spawns solar flares, coronal mass ejections and other space weather events, which can send highly energized particles racing toward Earth. Some solar storms have been known to disrupt communications systems and damage satellites.
To better understand these disturbances, a team of MIT researchers investigated the space weather conditions at the time of 26 failures in eight geostationary satellites operated by the London-based company Inmarsat. Geostationary satellites orbit at the same rate as the Earth’s rotation, meaning they always hover above the same location on the planet.
Most of the glitches, from 1996 to 2012, coincided with high-energy electron activity during declining phases of the solar cycle, the study found.
The researchers think these charged particles may have accumulated in the satellites over time. Despite protective shielding, the buildup likely caused internal charging that damaged the satellites’ amplifiers, which are needed to strengthen and relay a signal back to Earth. Over an extended mission, the researchers warn that this phenomenon could also cause the satellites’ backup amplifiers to fail.
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