It’s time for satellite makers to start doing something about space weather

A GLONASS satellite, courtesy of NASA.

A large chunk of data transfers on Earth are relayed by satellites, which hover above the Earth to provide services like TV and internet access. New research out of MIT has found that when these satellites fail, it’s often likely due to space weather — flurries of radioactive particles that bombard them and cause breakdowns over time.

Researchers studied 26 satellite failures from a 16 year period and found that most of the failures coincided with especially intense periods of particle exposure. For example, the Sun sometimes emits enormous clouds of particles, some of which head toward Earth. It is thought that the particles accumulate inside a satellite, where they damage electronics and eventually lead to failure.

Satellites are already designed to withstand the amount of radiation they will likely be exposed to over a lifetime that generally spans 15 years, but the MIT researchers found that current models don’t properly incorporate extreme space weather events. If researchers are able to learn enough about how space weather effects satellites, they could better design them to withstand the effects.

“Users are starting to demand more capabilities,” aeronautics and astronautics graduate student Whitney Lohmeyer said in a release. “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.”


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