This is how a solar storm destroyed Elon Musk's SpaceX satellites | Tech News

This is how a solar storm destroyed Elon Musk's SpaceX satellites

A solar storm can easily destroy satellites in space and that is exactly what happened to 49 Elon Musk’s SpaceX satellites.

| Updated on: Aug 22 2022, 10:41 IST
In February 2022, Elon Musk's SpaceX lost 49 satellites due to the solar storm. (REUTERS)

In February, one of the worst possibilities came true for astronomers and caused a massive space tragedy. Thankfully, no lives were lost, but it sure added up to massive costs in terms of damage caused aside from, of course, leaving the people concerned with bruised egos, if not total humiliation. The tragedy being referred to happened when as many as 49 satellites of Elon Musk led SpaceX company were destroyed in the atmosphere by space weather. It was caused after a geomagnetic storm disrupted the Earth's atmosphere causing most of the satellites to burn up in the atmosphere within a few days of their launch. The event was caused by the Sun shooting out energy particles into space and unfortunately, Earth was in the path. When these particles hit Earth's atmosphere they caused a geomagnetic storm. In effect, the satellites, which were still in the process of trying to reach higher orbits were hit by the storm and their rockets were just not strong enough to boost them higher and were soon enough dragged down to their doom, eventually burning up in lower atmsophere.

How it happened

When the atmosphere absorbs excess energy from solar storms, it raises the temperature and expands upward, which resultantly increases the density of the thermosphere. Higher the density – more the drag, which can cause problems for satellites trying to reach higher orbits. And this is exactly what happened to the SpaceX satellites last month. The satellites couldn't bear the excess drag and slowly started falling towards the Earth and during the process burned up in the atmosphere.

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Well, this is just the one hazard that magnetic storms pose. Besides this, an increase in the high energy electrons can penetrate the shielding on a spacecraft and can damage electronics. Moreover, it can disturb the radio waves and communication technologies such as GPS.

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The Sun has been violent always, but more so now. It has just gone into its next cycle. It will keep shooting plasma into the air and anything in its path will have to bear the brunt- take the heat or perish, so to speak. The reason is simple - the Sun has started a new 11-year 'Solar Cycle' back in December 2019, and that means it will keep shooting out massive plumes of energy frequently. It is expected to peak in 2025. And this fierce avatar of the Sun is releasing solar flares in space at regular intervals and the latest one crated this massive problem for SpaceX.

Geomagnetic storm

It can be seen as the result of solar flares on Earth. A geomagnetic storm is a severe disturbance of Earth's magnetosphere that occurs when energy from the solar wind is transmitted very rapidly into the space environment around our planet. While it poses no threat to humans on Earth, it does pose a threat to anything in the atmosphere as well as electronics and electricity infrastructure everywhere. The damage will always depend on the strength of the geomagnetic storm- the stronger it is, the worse the impact.

Till now, the strongest geomagnetic storm on record was in September 1859 which caused electrical surges in telegraph lines on Earth. In some cases, it set telegraph instruments on fire. If the geomagnetic storm of this magnitude hit today, it would be catastrophic as it could destroy satellites in space and the sea cables that carry our Internet. The cables themselves are safe, but the relays that bind them are not. Internet could theoretically be knocked out for months.

These storms are not all bad, they also generate the fascinatingly colourful auroras at the poles on our planet. But that is another, although related, sto

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First Published Date: 06 Mar, 08:31 IST