Possible Solution to Solar Flare Damage to Satellites

by Ian O'Neill on June 7, 2008

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Powerful solar flares can cause charge build-up on satellites (NASA)
When a solar flare blasts energetic particles and magnetic flux at Earth, our satellites are on the front line. As coronal mass ejections (CMEs) interact with the Earth’s magnetosphere, there is a huge injection of energetic electrons into the Earth’s radiation belts. This can have dire consequences for the satellites that we depend on for communications around the globe. All is not lost however. An international team of scientists have stumbled upon a possible, innovative solution to discharge these troublesome electrons into the atmosphere: bathe the skies in radio waves.

The magnetosphere (protective layers of geomagnetic field lines) traps energetic particles in a volume of space known as the Van Allen belt. Our satellites are constantly travelling through this high radiation environment. Most satellites are shielded from all but the worst the Van Allen belt can throw at them, but should the Sun send a high concentration of energetic particles at the Earth after a solar flare, the environment in the magnetosphere becomes a very dangerous place. Should the delicate circuitry on board the spacecraft be hit by energetic particles (a situation that possibly caused Mars Odyssey to be switched to “safe-mode”), the satellite could be irreversibly damaged.

Now, a chance discovery by French and New Zealand scientists indicate that magnetospheric electrons can be discharged into the atmosphere by using ground-based radio transmitters. This finding comes from a new paper to be published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. Rory Gamble, a PhD student of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, and his colleagues were analysing the data from DEMETER (Detection of Electro-Magnetic Emissions Transmitted from Earthquake Regions), a satellite sensitive to radiation changes in the magnetosphere. As the satellite passed over a military transmitter in Western Australia, they noticed that magnetospheric electrons were discharged into the atmosphere, thereby removing them from the magnetosphere.

We were able to determine that this transmitter has a direct effect on the electrons in the radiation belts [in the magnetosphere], it caused those electrons to crash into the top of the atmosphere and be removed from the radiation belts.” – Rory Gamble

This finding is a very exciting development for the human-influenced manipulation of the levels of radiation in the magnetosphere. During periods of high solar activity, when energetic electrons are expected to populate the radiation belts in higher densities, there could be a system in place to bathe the sky in radio waves, allowing safer passage for satellites. This phenomenon has been known to exist when transmitting radio waves in space, but this is the first example of electron discharge from a ground-based transmitter.

Source: ABC

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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

Ian O'Neill June 8, 2008 at 5:27 AM

To Michael: You’re right, it was meant to be an Australian military transmitter, and not the scientists. Corrected now :-)

Cheers, Ian :D

Michael June 8, 2008 at 1:59 AM

Who actually discovered this? First the article says the scientists are Australians. A bit further on in the same article the scientists are from France and New Zealand (in this order), and eventually the same article goes on to say it is a PhD student from New Zealand.

Response to the proposed solution:

For me mankind has obliterated more than enough of the Earth already, and we’ve managed to launch tons and tons of debris into orbit around Earth, why continue on this rampage and irradiate space with radio waves? Maybe those charged particles are out there for a reason we don’t yet understand? I’d rather see billions of dollars worth of satellites getting fried by a mighty CME, than tinker around willy nilly with something as vital to life on Earth as the Van Allen belts! Once upon a time DDT seemed a good idea too. Think before you act!!!

PHWilson June 8, 2008 at 7:47 AM

Oh Mercy! Now every satellite will carry its own boom box thumping away just like the cars that go by at 4am. Hey, maybe gangsta rap will send a “Don’t Tread On Me” message to hostile alien invasion fleets ;).

Qev June 8, 2008 at 11:29 AM

@Michael

Nature hates being anthropomorphized.

Richad Kirk June 9, 2008 at 4:44 AM

Is this the first evidence for this sort of thing? I remember in the 1980′s (?) long-distance TV buffs reporting a variation in signal strength. The signal strength, when plotted out with time had a semi-regular square wave profile, which they tentatively identified with data packets being sent via a line-of-sight link to some military satellite. Caused a bit of a hoo-hah at the time because line of sight links were supposed to be secure. They couldn’t read any data of course, but even knowing the packet length was a nasty surprise for someone.

Anti-jerry June 9, 2008 at 8:24 PM

Jeez Jerry! Calm Down! nothing in this article was bashing christianity. back away from the keyboard and take your prozac.
-The Anti-Jerry

(And yes, I’m out to get you!)

Jerry June 10, 2008 at 12:28 PM

Anti-jerry

You want me to “calm-down” because you are of the same agenda (me thinks) as that anti-Christian ad. No I won’t calm down to please any Christian bashers or their enablers! You say you’re out to get me as though we’re all supposed to laugh. Don’t fall into a manhole on your way trying.

Michael Gmirkin June 19, 2008 at 5:55 PM

Wait, wait, wait… Radio frequency EM waves have an effect on electron populations? Gosh, who’d have thunk it?

Haven’t they been manipulating charged particles with little things called “particle accelerators” for yet? And what do they use?

Hmm… I’ll let you look that up!

(Linear Accelerator)
http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/particles/linac.html

(Cyclotrons)
http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/particles/cyclo.html#c1

(Synchrotrons)
http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/particles/synch.html#c1

Hmm, RF voltages anyone? *Wink* Could it be that the radio waves are setting up a weak electric field in the atmosphere and/or near-earth space that’s causing the charged particles to migrate?

Just a thought. Could be off base.

Cheers,
~Michael Gmirkin

Michael Gmirkin June 19, 2008 at 5:56 PM

Oops…

That should say: *for years.

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