Could storms on the sun disrupt our communications infrastructure? Yes, they can… and do. The potential impact of solar events on satellite infrastructure was discussed at length during a 2009 NASA-funded study of the risks related to ‘severe space weather’. The report mentioned the following incident:
One example of space weather’s impact on satellites was Telesat’s Anik experience in 1994. On January 20, 1994, Telesat’s Anik E1 was disabled for about 7 hours as a result of space weather-induced static-electricity-discharge damage to its control electronics. This satellite provides communication services in Canada. During this period, the Canadian press was unable to deliver news to 100 newspapers and 450 radio stations. In addition, telephone service to 40 communities was interrupted.
One hour after E1 recovered, Telesat’s Anik E2 went off-air. As a result, TV and data services were lost to more than 1,600 remote communities. Backup systems were also damaged, making the US$290 million satellite useless. Approximately 100,000 home satellite dish owners were required to manually re-point their dishes to E1 and other satellites. The satellite was restored following a US$50 million-C$70 million 6-month recovery effort.
Whilst more robust satellites, cheaper launchers and better forecasting of space weather might help to limit the damage caused by extreme solar events, the problems for comms providers might also occur on ground level. In particular, a severe solar event might bring down the power grid for several days by burning out transformers. This would lead to a double headache for telcos: how to keep their network up and running at the time when society most needs it – and will likely overload it.
And how likely is such a catastrophic storm? Perhaps more likely than we would like to think, though in such cases the lack of data causes headaches for anyone trying to calculate the probability. In 1859 a solar flare precipitated a geomagnetic storm so severe that it electrified telegraph lines, giving unfortunate technicians an unexpected shock. A repeat of that storm would cause a lot more damage to today’s highly interconnected power grid.
Earlier this month, a spectacular if relatively mild solar flare and subsequent ejection caught the attention of the press. They then reported on its possible risks to our planet. Some exaggerated – the world did not end – but it served as a reminder that it is too late to prepare after the crisis has hit. In the meantime, enjoy this video of the sun’s recent eruption: