WASHINGTON – The combination of the approaching “solar maximum” and the deployment of a new generation of compact yet vulnerable satellite electronics has space weather experts gearing up their efforts to prevent disruptions to communications, navigation and other vital networks.
The 11-year cycle of maximum solar flare activity is expected to peak in 2013 or 2014. One of the largest solar flares in years hit the Earth in March, but NASA observers reported that its impact on the power grid and communications was limited based on the angle at which it hit Earth.
As the sun begins flinging greater amounts of high-energy protons, ions, ultraviolet radiation and other energetic particles towards Earth, the latest generation of satellites stuffed with compact, low-power electronics will undergo a sort of trial by fire. A fundamental problem, experts said, is that dielectric materials used to make low-power space components can be penetrated and damaged by high-energy particles cast off by the sun.
If not properly shielded, space systems used to control GPS navigation systems, for example, could be degraded or knocked out of service at the height of solar storms. (Solar flares also temporarily increase atmospheric drag on low-orbiting satellites, something NASA says is good for getting rid of space junk but bad because it reduces the lifetime of functioning satellites.)
Space weather experts concerned about the impact of the next solar maximum on satellite electronics are preparing to measure the properties of a highly-charged space environment while gauging the effects of the next wave of space weather on the latest generation of satellites.