Satellites are more likely to be at risk from high-speed solar wind than a major geomagnetic storm, according to a study. Researchers, including those from British Antarctic Survey, investigated the space weather risks to orbiting satellites and calculated electron radiation levels within the Van Allen radiation belts. This ring-doughnut-shaped zone wraps around the Earth, trapping charged particles.
Satellites more at risk from solar wind than space storm
Geostationary orbit lies inside the Van Allen radiation belts, according to the study published in the Journal Space Weather. The study, which analysed years of satellite data, found that electron radiation levels at geostationary orbit could remain exceptionally high for five days or more, even after the solar wind speed had died down. As a result, electronic components on satellites could charge up to dangerously high levels and become damaged. "Until now we thought that the biggest risk to orbiting satellites was geomagnetic storms, said Professor Richard Horne, lead author of the study.
In a major geomagnetic storm the field is distorted and radiation levels peak closer to the Earth, researchers said. "Electronic components on satellites are usually protected from electrostatic charges by encasing them in metal shielding," Horne said. "There are well over 450 satellites in geostationary orbit and so in a realistic worst case we would expect many satellites to report malfunctions and a strong likelihood of service outage and total satellite loss," he said.