How NASA spots potentially catastrophic geomagnetic storms before they strike

Celestial events can literally melt humanity's electronic infrastructure.

Evgenii Krasnikov via Getty Images

A recent batch of SpaceX’s Starlink internet-beaming cubesats met with tragedy on February 3rd when a 49-member cohort of the newly-launched satellites encountered a strong geomagnetic storm in orbit.

“These storms cause the atmosphere to warm and atmospheric density at our low deployment altitudes to increase. In fact, onboard GPS suggests the escalation speed and severity of the storm caused atmospheric drag to increase up to 50 percent higher than during previous launches,” SpaceX wrote in a blog update last Wednesday. “The Starlink team commanded the satellites into a safe-mode where they would fly edge-on (like a sheet of paper) to minimize drag.” Unfortunately, 40 of the satellites never came out of safe mode and, as of Wednesday’s announcement, are expected to, if they haven’t already, fall to their doom in Earth’s atmosphere.

While this incident constitutes is only a minor setback for SpaceX and its goal of entombing the planet with more than 42,000 of the signal-bouncing devices, geomagnetic storms pose an ongoing threat to the world’s electrical infrastructure — interrupting broadcast and telecommunications signals, damaging electrical grids, disrupting global navigation systems, while exposing astronauts and airline passengers alike with dangerous doses of solar radiation.

The NOAA defines geomagnetic storms as “a major disturbance of Earth's magnetosphere that occurs when there is a very efficient exchange of energy from the solar wind into the space environment surrounding Earth.” Solar winds, composed of plasma and high-energy particles, are ejected from the Sun’s outermost coronal layers and carry the same charge as the sun’s magnetic field, oriented either North or South.

When that charged solar wind hits Earth’s magnetosphere — moreso if it is especially energetic or carries a southern polarization — it can cause magnetic reconnection of the dayside magnetopause. This, in turn, accelerates plasma in that region down the atmosphere’s magnetic field lines towards the planet’s poles where the added energy excites nitrogen and oxygen atoms to generate the Northern Lights aurora effect. That extra energy also causes the magnetosphere itself to oscillate, creating electrical currents which further disrupt the region’s magnetic fields — all of which make up magnetic storms.

“Storms also result in intense currents in the magnetosphere, changes in the radiation belts, and changes in the ionosphere, including heating the ionosphere and upper atmosphere region called the thermosphere,” notes the NOAA. “In space, a ring of westward current around Earth produces magnetic disturbances on the ground.”

Basically, when the Sun belches out a massive blast of solar wind, it travels through space and smacks into the Earth’s magnetic shell where all that energy infuses into the planet’s magnetic field, causing electrical chaos while making a bunch of atoms in the upper reaches of the atmosphere jiggle in just the right way to create a light show. Behold, the majesty of our cosmos, the celestial equivalent of waving away a wet burp from the slob next to you at the bar.

Solar flares occur with varying frequency depending on where the Sun is in its 11-year solar cycle with fewer than one happening each week during solar minimums to multiple flares daily during the maximal period. Their intensities oscillate similarly, though if the electromagnetic storm of 1859 — the largest such event on record, dubbed the Carrington Event — were to occur today, its damage to Earth’s satellite and telecom systems is estimated to run in the trillions of US dollars, requiring months if not years of repairs to undo. The event pushed the Northern aurora borealis as far south as the Caribbean and energized telegraph lines to the point of combustion. A similar storm in March of 1989 was only as third as powerful as Carrington but it still managed to straight up melt an electrical transformer in New Jersey as well as knock out Quebec’s power grid in a matter of seconds, stranding 6 million customers in the dark for nine hours until the system’s equipment could be sequentially checked and reset.

Space Weather effects
European Space Agency

Even when they’re not electrocuting telegraph operators or demolishing power grids, geomagnetic storms can cause all sorts of havoc with our electrical systems. Geomagnetically induced currents can saturate the magnetic cores within power transformers, causing the voltage and currents traveling within their coils to spike leading to overloads. Changes within the structure and density of the Earth’s ionosphere due to solar storms can disrupt and outright block high frequency radio and ultra-high frequency satellite transmissions. GPS navigation systems are similarly susceptible to disruption during these events.

"A worst-case solar storm could have an economic impact similar to a category 5 hurricane or a tsunami," Dr. Sten Odenwald of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in 2017. "There are more than 900 working satellites with an estimated replacement value of $170 billion to $230 billion, supporting a $90 billion-per-year industry. One scenario showed a 'superstorm' costing as much as $70 billion due to a combination of lost satellites, service loss, and profit loss."

Most importantly to SpaceX, solar storms can increase the amount of drag the upper edges of the atmosphere exert upon passing spacecraft. There isn’t much atmosphere in low Earth orbit where the ISS and a majority of satellites reside but there is enough to cause a noticeable amount of drag on passing objects. This drag increases during daylight hours as the Sun’s energy excites atoms in lower regions of the atmosphere pushing them higher into LEO and creating a higher-density layer that satellites have to push through. Geomagnetic storms can exacerbate this effect by producing large short-term increases in the upper atmosphere’s temperature and density.

satellite drag

“There are only two natural disasters that could impact the entire US,” University of Michigan researcher, Gabor Toth, said in a press statement last August. “One is a pandemic. And the other is an extreme space weather event.”

"We have all these technological assets that are at risk," he continued. "If an extreme event like the one in 1859 happened again, it would completely destroy the power grid and satellite and communications systems — the stakes are much higher."

Austin Brenner, University of Michigan

In order to extend the time between a solar eruption and its resulting winds slamming into our magnetosphere, Toth and his team have worked to develop the Geospace Model version 2.0 (which is what the NOAA currently employs) using state-of-the-art computer learning systems and statistical analysis schemes. With it, astronomers and power grid operators are afforded a scant 30 minutes of advanced warning before solar winds reach the planet — just enough time to put vital electrical systems into standby mode or otherwise mitigate the storm’s impact.

Toth’s team relies on X-ray and UV data “from a satellite measuring plasma parameters one million miles away from the Earth,” he explained, in order to spot coronal mass ejections as they happen. “From that point, we can run a model and predict the arrival time and impact of magnetic events," Toth said.

NASA has developed and launched a number of missions in recent years to better predict the tumultuous behavior of our local star. In 2006, for example, the space agency launched the STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) mission in which a pair of observatories measured the “flow of energy and matter” from the Sun to Earth. Currently, NASA is working on two more missions — Multi-slit Solar Explorer (MUSE) and HelioSwarm — to more fully understand the Sun-Earth connection.

“MUSE and HelioSwarm will provide new and deeper insight into the solar atmosphere and space weather,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA, said in a February news release. “These missions not only extend the science of our other heliophysics missions—they also provide a unique perspective and a novel approach to understanding the mysteries of our star.”

MUSE aims to study the forces that heat the corona and drive eruptions in that solar layer. “MUSE will help us fill crucial gaps in knowledge pertaining to the Sun-Earth connection,” Nicola Fox, director of NASA’s Heliophysics Division, added. “It will provide more insight into space weather and complements a host of other missions within the heliophysics mission fleet.”

The HelioSwarm, on the other hand, is actually a collection of nine spacecraft tasked with taking “first multiscale in-space measurements of fluctuations in the magnetic field and motions of the solar wind.”

"The technical innovation of HelioSwarm's small satellites operating together as a constellation provides the unique ability to investigate turbulence and its evolution in the solar wind," Peg Luce, deputy director of the Heliophysics Division, said.

These ongoing research efforts to better comprehend our place in the solar system and how to be neighborly with the massive nuclear fusion reactor down the celestial block are sure to prove vital as humanity’s telecommunications technologies continue to mature. Because, no matter how hardened our systems, we simply cannot afford a repeat of 1859.