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Sep 17, 2013 09:19 AM EDT

Space Weather Linked To Satellite Glitches, Study


Extreme space weather conditions like solar flares, geomagnetic storms and other forms of electromagnetic radiation can cause geostationary satellite malfunctions, according to a new study conducted by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The satellites are responsible for providing the world access to cable television, internet services and global communications.

The researchers arrived at the conclusion after examining 26 satellite failures of eight geostationary satellites that occurred between 1996 and 2012 and found that most of them failed during intense periods of particle activity.

Experts state that when the Sun emits huge clouds of particles, some of them move in the direction of the Earth. These particles then accumulate inside a satellite, destroying electronics and subsequently causing its breakdown.

Majority of the satellites are designed to last up to 15 years and to resist the radiation during their lifespan.  

"If we can understand how the environment affects these satellites, and we can design to improve the satellites to be more tolerant, then it would be very beneficial not just in cost but also in efficiency," said MIT aeronautics and astronautics graduate student Whitney Lohmeyer.

Lohmeyer said that if scientists and engineers have an advanced understanding of effects of space weather on satellites, it will not only help the existing fleet but will also help design the next generation of communications satellites.

"Users are starting to demand more capabilities," Lohmeyer said. "They want to start video-streaming data, they want to communicate faster with higher data rates. So design is changing - along with susceptibilities to space weather and radiation that didn't used to exist, but are now becoming a problem."

Although the engineers consider space weather while designing the satellites using radiation models, Kerri Cahoy, co-author and assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT states that radiation exposure depends on its orbit.

"But space weather is a lot more dynamic than models predict, and there are many different ways that charged particles can wreak havoc on your satellite's electronics," Cahoy said. "The hard part about satellites is that when something goes wrong, you don't get it back to do analysis and figure out what happened."

The research was published in the journal Space Weather.

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