Scientists Ponder Space Superstorm

BOULDER, Colorado - Californians have long been bracing for the "big one" in terms of an earthquake. But the Sun lobs flares that are the most violent events in the solar system. A large flare releases a million times more energy than the largest earthquake.

The relative void between Sun and Earth is loaded with electrically-charged particles, radiation, magnetic field, and electromagnetic energy. The effects from this space weather can range from damage to satellites to disruption of power grids on Earth.

Space weather can wreak havoc on a planet-wide basis. And a look back more than 145 years ago may offer clues as to how harmful a space superstorm might be given our dependence on technological systems.

Understanding and dealing with such consequences was a key issue for nearly 350 industry, academic and government experts taking part in Space Weather Week, held here April 25-28.

Space Weather Week was co-sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Space Environment Center, NASA's Heliophysics Division and the National Science Foundation's Division of Atmospheric Science.

Satellite-linked society

The implications stemming from a geomagnetic superstorm akin to the one that occurred in 1859 would be economically devastating given our reliance upon satellites. That's the view of Sten Odenwald of the QSS Corporation based at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Odenwald's satellite economic modeling work was melded with historical aspects of the 1859 storm, researched by NASA Goddard scientist, Jim Green. That 1859 event extended over a period from Aug. 28 through to Sept. 3. One impact back then: A significant portion of the world's 140,000 miles of telegraph lines were unusable for a number of hours.

Now, jump to today's satellite-linked society.

Taking a statistical approach is probably the only way to get a global handle on the economic impact, Odenwald told "Our satellites have collectively shown themselves to be incredibly robust against major failures. Typically during the last solar activity cycle- Cycle 23- only a few satellites seemed to suffer debilitating damage to their ability to operate profitably," he said. 

However, Odenwald advised, Earth did not experienced the kinds of space weather conditions expected for a major "superstorm" like the one in 1859.

Statistical confidence level

Hypothetically thinking, Odenwald said, what about a worse-case scenario of an 1859-type superstorm taking place in 2012 at the peak of the next sunspot cycle?

Of the nearly 300 geosynchronous orbiting satellites (GEO) in operation, "such a storm may only actually kill a few dozen of the oldest systems, but will likely reduce the operating life of all the other satellites by 5-10 years," Odenwald said. "That would, in the long run, be a bigger economic catastrophe."

Odenwald projects billions of dollars of lost GEO satellite profit during an 1859-caliber superstorm. The model he has used to reach ballpark numbers includes a realistic treatment of how leased transponders are actually shifted to neighboring satellites from failing "host" satellites.

The estimated profit loss tallies about $30 billion, Odenwald said. That figure is expected to climb higher as he mixes in various types of catastrophic satellite anomalies.

Future work will include collateral economic impacts, pushing the profit loss upwards of $70 billion and higher, Odenwald suggested. "The GEO satellites themselves generate about $97 billion in revenue each year. A superstorm may well eat up most of that revenue for at least a few years."

Odenwald said that his research approach, coupled with more knowledge about how satellites are affected by severe solar storms- some of which is proprietary or classified-will help boost his statistical confidence level.

Dollar impact

A superstorm would influence operations below GEO, among lower-altitude satellites there, too. For one, such a powerful outburst would disrupt civil and government navigation systems like the Global Positioning System (GPS). GPS satellite signals travel through a part of the Earth's atmosphere called the ionosphere to receivers on or near Earth.

GPS is a worldwide radio-navigation system formed from a constellation of satellites and their ground stations. GPS uses the satellites as reference points to calculate positions on the ground accurate to a matter of meters. Space weather disturbances in the ionosphere seriously degrade GPS accuracy.

In his work, Odenwald suggests that roughly a 100 low Earth-orbiting spacecraft would experience an earlier-than-normal reentry. The storm would heat the Earth's upper atmosphere, causing it to expand and therefore increase the drag on satellites.

"The $100 billion International Space Station may lose significant altitude, placing it in critical need for re-boosting by an amount potentially outside the range of typical space shuttle operations, which are in any case scheduled to end in 2010," Odenwald and Green reported.

"So far as I know, my study is the first of its kind, and it leads to some very interesting limits to the dollar impact of severe storms on our satellite industry," Odenwald said.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.