By Dr. Kandis Y. Wyatt, PMP
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics
Recently, a geomagnetic storm led to the demise of 40 SpaceX satellites launched on February 3, causing them to lose altitude. The Starlink satellites launched on February 3 were focused on bringing internet access to more countries but unfortunately, they will not reach their intended orbit. In addition, 80% of these Starlink satellites will reenter the earth’s atmosphere at some point and burn up upon reentry.
What Is a Geomagnetic Storm?
According to WBIR, a geomagnetic storm causes the atmosphere to increase in temperature and density, which affects aerodynamic drag on satellites such as the SpaceX satellites. Similarly, WION notes that a geomagnetic storm is also a temporary disturbance of the earth’s atmosphere caused by a solar wind shockwave.
Another way to describe geomagnetic storms is a magnetized cloud that interacts with the earth’s magnetic field. The charged particles cause the atmosphere to be further disturbed and prevent satellites from reentering the earth’s atmosphere.
Understanding Geomagnetic Storms Is Crucial
There are over 6,500 satellites currently in space, and up to 1,000 more SpaceX satellites are projected to be launched each year over the next 10 years. Consequently, understanding geometric storms is crucial to both the satellite industry and the safety of humans on earth as satellites re-enter the atmosphere.
Our understanding of geomagnetic storms in the 21st century continues to grow, thanks to improvements in information access. But how a geomagnetic storm interacts with high orbit space is still a mystery. For example, the duration, intensity, and impact of geomagnetic storms are important and need further research.
The Role of Coronal Mass Ejections and Solar Winds
According to weather.gov, coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are the source of all geomagnetic storms. These storms raise the density of the atmosphere and increase aerodynamic drag on satellites by up to 50%.
Solar winds containing electrons and protons from the sun also play a role in these storms. These particles in solar winds are magnetized and disturb Earth’s magnetic field.
The sun has a solar cycle that repeats every 20 years, so these storms may become worse over time. As a result, satellites may need to be deployed at a higher altitude to address aerodynamic drag at low orbits.
Geomagnetic Storms Can Affect Life on Earth
Geomagnetic storms have multiple harmful effects including ionization, electromagnetic emission, ultraviolet radiation and radio emissions. Human life on Earth can be affected because one geomagnetic storm can disrupt global positioning systems, enhance earthquakes and affect living organisms. According to Gupta C. Rashmi, S. Chaudhary and Ashok Gwal in an article written for the International Journal of Advance Research, Ideas and Innovations in Technology, “Many strong earthquakes come just because of solar flares and CMEs (main causes of geomagnetic storms) which influences the Earth’s tectonic plates and release a high energy.”
For instance, radio communication, the orientation of satellites, enhanced radiation for astronauts, and power grids could be affected. Over time, geomagnetic activity can adversely affect climatic conditions such as temperatures on Earth.
Sadly, there’s no way to stop a geomagnetic storm; however, satellite manufacturers need to develop ways to mitigate disruptions from these storms in the future. More work is needed to gain a better understanding of sun/Earth interactions and geomagnetic storms.
More Free, Shareable Data about Geomagnetic Storms Is Needed
In addition, more data about geomagnetic storms is needed to create information that will help individuals and organizations make smart decisions in various sectors such as energy and agriculture. Having more trustworthy and transparent international data that is collected uniformly will help forecasters to develop more effective predictive models.
However, many data collection platforms are antiquated and rely on humans recording information manually. As a result, countries need to invest in digitizing data to save time and money, so trained data scientist experts are needed.
Weather data needs to be made available to the public for free; however, free meteorology data is a low priority for some countries. Private companies collect data for a fee, so there may need to be an international mandate to keep weather observations available for free.
While there is a robust space observation system in some countries, it is more difficult to collect data at higher elevations, in remote areas such as deserts and rainforests, and over the oceans. In developing nations, observation networks are sparse or not available.
But real-time observations are needed globally to gain a better understanding of these storms. Understanding Earth-sun interactions on a global scale can have societal implications in areas such as health, agriculture, education and research. It’s important to make free, accessible data available to researchers to further our understanding of geomagnetic storms.