Solar Flares and Satellite Comms

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:

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.