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Sun’s wrath threatens communication on Earth

May’s intense solar flares highlight the vulnerability of global communication and power infrastructure to blackout risks from unpredictable solar changes.

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VoicenData Bureau
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May’s intense solar flares highlight the vulnerability of global communication and power infrastructure to blackout risks from unpredictable solar changes.

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During the month of May, Earth was struck by the most severe solar storm it has encountered in the past two decades. This event sparked concerns about the potential for multiple blackouts, including those of satellites in orbit, ground stations, power grids, and global communications and networking infrastructure. The incident underscored a long-standing worry that has plagued humanity for years—what might occur when the most devastating solar storm inevitably strikes Earth?

The 1859 Carrington Event knocked out global telegraph infrastructure, while the 2003 Halloween Storm impacted power grids in South Africa and Sweden.

While the worst circumstances were avoided this time, the issues are not out of the line. Solar storms, which occur due to solar flares that come in periodic intervals, can be devastating. At their potential worst, solar storms can destroy satellites in orbit. This can damage most of the global positioning systems and communication frequencies. On the ground, this can cause satellite stations to stop working as radio frequencies and laser-based data transfers are interrupted. In their worst cases, solar storms that eventually hit the lowest rungs of the atmosphere can potentially damage power grids and transformers, too—all of which can come together to bring the global juggernaut of telecommunications, positioning and networking infrastructure to a grinding halt.

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Even as the gorgeous aurora borealis, or the northern lights, continue to entice tourists and make them travel far and wide in search of magical experiences, these solar storms can be catastrophic for communications and technologies that make the world function.

What are Solar Storms?

The Sun, the central star of the solar system, has been studied extensively since the mid-1700s, providing nearly three centuries of data and observations regarding its behaviour. As a result, one key observation made is its periodic cycles—solar activity follows an 11-year pattern. In this cycle, material activity on the Sun’s surface and magnetic activity in its atmosphere increases to reach a crescendo in the middle of the cycle before gradually slowing down. Eventually, it follows an ebb-and-flow pattern.

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With AI, algorithms can help predict and project the intensity of a bad solar storm’s impact and help protect satellites against irreversible damage.

When the activity peaks, plasma material on the Sun’s surface reacts violently due to gaseous reactions and ‘storms’ on the solar mass. This leads to an incident that space observation bodies have termed ‘coronal mass ejection’ or CME—an activity that causes the storm to spew out plasma material from its surface. This, in turn, causes the magnetic field around the solar atmosphere to eventually snap due to the sheer force, ejecting a spew of charged particles with their magnetic field across the solar system. While this happens across all directions of space, what concerns scientists are only the storms that face Earth’s way.

When the storm nears Earth, its magnetic field—the outermost layer of the atmosphere—helps protect against most of it. However, in the most powerful solar storms, the charged particles ejected by the Sun overwhelm the Earth’s magnetic field, and the ions from the Sun enter the lower levels of the atmosphere. While this is what causes the Northern Lights, it also affects most of the global infrastructure. This is commonly referred to as a solar storm.

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How Does it Impact?

When a solar storm occurs, satellites placed in orbit get affected since the atmosphere around the Earth gets heated up. This, in turn, changes the density of the atmosphere, which impacts how objects in the Earth’s atmosphere travel. For satellites, changes in trajectories could be planned. However, what cannot be planned are changes to the trajectories of space debris—which in turn leaves satellites at potential collision risk.

These satellites can also end up defunct or dysfunctional if the storm is exceptionally high and makes a direct hit on the satellites before they can react. In such cases, the electrical circuits in a satellite are overwhelmed and risk being entirely damaged. Charged solar particles also interfere with radio frequency transmissions and laser communications systems between satellites in orbit or satellites to ground stations—thereby leading to faulty wireless data transmission or, worst case, no transmissions at all.

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Solar storms can cause satellite stations to stop working, interrupting radio frequencies and laser-based data transfers and halting communication.

At the lowest levels of the atmosphere, charged particles can also overpower on-ground power grids. This can lead to irreversible damage to power infrastructure, which then needs to be replaced.

As a result of all this, what can potentially go wrong is global communications infrastructure. With India opening up space-based satellite communications as a field, Satcom-powered Internet services can potentially face complete blackouts. Satellite operators may also lose satellites—like Elon Musk’s Starlink in 2022. Such incidents have already happened before—in the infamous ‘Carrington Event’ of 1859, the global telegraph infrastructure was knocked out. More recently, in 2003’s ‘Halloween Storm’, power grids in South Africa and Sweden were knocked offline by vicious solar storms.

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What Can Be Done?

Solar storms are nothing unusual, to be sure, and vary in magnitude. The most benign are solar storms rated as ‘C’, which are low intensity. The ‘M’ rated storms are also essentially harmless, and with prior knowledge, any damage can be avoided.

The concerning ones are rated ‘G’ and ‘X’—leaving the world’s satellite, networking and power operators with work. However, experts have conducted regular research to understand the related incidents thoroughly. For instance, the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) under the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, as well as the European Space Agency, continuously study solar behaviour through satellites and spacecraft placed at strategic ‘Lagrange’ points between the Earth and the Sun. The Indian Space Research Organisation has also joined this party, with its maiden Aditya-L1 solar observatory sitting at Lagrange Point-1, or L1, to observe changes and errant behaviour from  the Sun.

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For the most part, solar observatories do a reasonable job of warning systems back on Earth about potentially devastating solar storms. However, the Sun’s behaviour can also be erratic, which means that simply following a set pattern may not help in protecting the  global infrastructure.

This is where Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data analytics come into play. With AI, algorithms can help predict and project the intensity of a bad solar storm’s impact. If used correctly, solar storms can be expected and protected against—which may help protect satellites against irreversible damage. In the long run, this is key.

So, Are We Safe?

Unfortunately, as with all things space, one can never say never. As the solar surface continues to age, solar storms could become increasingly unpredictable. As they worsen, ruling out the possibility of being completely protected against a solar storm surpassing all others may prove challenging.

However, until then, global coordination across space agencies, on-ground studies and dedicated bodies studying space weather remain vigilant to ensure that satellites are shielded and diverted when such storms hit. For instance, even during May’s X-rated storm, no significant impact was reported worldwide. 

By Vernika Awal

feedbackvnd@cybermedia.co.in

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