Our Naughty Sun: Galaxy 15 Zombiesat Incident Highlights the Need to Keep a Close Eye on Our Home Star — and Congress Ponies up $100 million to Prevent “Electronic Armageddon”
I recently went to a talk by Goddard sun scientist Dean Pesnell about the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Pesnell is the project scientist for SDO, which launched February 11.
(Did you catch him being interviewed on CNN last week, June 7? Gogblog tips his solar dynamical hat to the SDO Tweeps out there who sent minute-by-minute updates of Pesnell’s on-camera adventures.)
Pesnell and others emphasize how important it is to have observatories like SDO to watch the closest star to Earth. Stormy space weather — basically, explosions of stuff from the sun’s surface — can interfere with or even damage satellites.
And in a case of life conveniently imitating PR, on April 5 the Galaxy 15 communication satellite stopped responding to commands, possibly because of a solar storm. The craft, which routes television traffic, was set adrift toward the telecommunication turf of another satellite, AMC-11.
Galaxy 15 was mindlessly broadcasting signals that could have interfered with other satellites. AMC-11’s operator, SES, worked to maneuver its bird to prevent interference. As of last week, Space News was reporting that no interference occurred.
It’s hard to be absolutely certain that our sun took out Galaxy 15, but the circumstances are pretty incriminating. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration reported a strong geomagnetic storm April 5 – the strongest of the year to that date. “A sharp gust of solar wind hit Earth’s magnetosphere today, April 5th, at approximately 0800 UT and sparked the strongest geomagnetic storm of the year.”
*** 1:43 pm. This just in from our art-imitating-life department: Check out this Brewster Rockit comic, which has ripped the Galaxy 15 story from the headlines and put a cute new spin on it. Thanks to Michelle Thaller, Goddard’s official Mistress of Science Communications, for the tip…
Blogolicious Angry Sun Facts
- In 2006, a solar storm knocked out GPS coverage for half of the globe.
- A 1989 solar storm cut power to 6 million in Quebec.
- The Superstorm of 1859 disabled telegraph systems in North America and Europe.
- The storm triggered auroral displays as far south as the Caribbean.
Now, another reminder of the threats posed by our naughty sun has surfaced in the blogpodcastotwittersphere — “Electronic Armageddon: Congress Worries That Solar Flares Could Spell Disaster.” The article posted on FOXNews.com yesterday (June 10).
Here are the nuggets:
High-energy electric pulses from the sun could surge to Earth and cripple our electrical grid for years, causing billions in damages, government officials and scientists worry.
The House is so concerned that the Energy and Commerce committee voted unanimously 47 to 0 to approve a bill allocating $100 million to protect the energy grid from this rare but potentially devastating occurrence.
The Grid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense Act, or H.R. 5026, aims “to amend the Federal Power Act to protect the bulk-power system and electric infrastructure critical to the defense of the United States against cybersecurity and other threats and vulnerabilities.”
The science press has been full of warnings for years about the risk that a “perfect storm” of bad space weather could cause one of the underpinnings of Western society — the national power grid. But perhaps the dire language of a 2008 National Academy of Sciences report, “Severe Space Weather Events — Societal and Economic Impacts,” grabbed Congress’s attention.
Among other scary things, the report says that the impact of a major solar storm could cause $1 to $2 trillion in damage and take us a decade to recover from. Imagine entire cities without power, water, transportation, and (shudder) Internet service for extended periods.
OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center.