From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : Solar Storm
Mains level : NA
Spacex’s newest fleet of satellites is tumbling out of orbit after being struck by a solar storm.
- A solar storm or a Coronal Mass Ejection as astronomers call it is an ejection of highly magnetized particles from the sun.
- These particles can travel several million km per hour and can take about 13 hours to five days to reach Earth.
- Earth’s atmosphere protects us, humans, from these particles.
- But the particles can interact with our Earth’s magnetic field, induce strong electric currents on the surface and affect man-made structures.
How did they impact SpaceX satellites?
- The issue came up due to increased drag created by the solar storm in the upper reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere.
- These storms cause the atmosphere to warm and atmospheric density at our low deployment altitudes to increase.
- In fact onboard GPS suggests the escalation speed and severity of the storm caused atmospheric drag to increase up to 50 percent higher than during previous launches.
History of solar storms
- The first recorded solar storm occurred in 1859 and it reached Earth in about 17 hours.
- It affected the telegraph network and many operators experienced electric shocks.
- A solar storm that occurred in 1921 impacted New York telegraph and railroad systems and another small-scale storm collapsed the power grid in Quebec, Canada in 1989.
- A 2013 report noted that if a solar storm similar to the 1859 one hit the US today, about 20-40 million people could be without power for 1-2 years, and the total economic cost will be $0.6-2.6 trillion.
Why are they a cause of concern?
- The Sun goes through an 11-year cycle – cycles of high and low activity.
- It also has a longer 100-year cycle.
- During the last three decades, when the internet infrastructure was booming, it was a low period.
- And very soon, either in this cycle or the next cycle, we are going towards the peaks of the 100-year cycle.
- So it is highly likely that we might see one powerful solar storm during our lifetime.