Scientists believe that the increase in solar activity is already creating problems for spacecraft, but it will be even worse.
Some satellites that are in low Earth orbit have begun to deviate from their flight path and are increasingly immersed in the atmosphere. Scientists attribute such events to the beginning of a new solar cycle, which turned out to be very active, with a large number of solar flares and coronal mass ejections. Solar particles reaching Earth are already disrupting satellites and even the International Space Station has to constantly maneuver to stay in a stable orbit. space.
Since the end of last year, scientists from the European Space Agency (ESA) have been observing the gradual de-orbiting of satellites that study the Earth’s magnetic field. These satellites began to sink into the atmosphere 10 times faster and much deeper than before.
“If earlier they were sinking into the upper atmosphere by 3 km per year, then in the last months of 2022 they are already sinking by 20 kilometers,” says Anja Stromme from the European Space Agency.
Satellites often encounter drag from the residual atmosphere, which slows them down. Scientists can, if the satellites have engines, correct their flight and return them to their orbit. But, if the satellites are no longer needed, then they fall and burn out in the upper layers of the Earth’s atmosphere.
The cause of all troubles is solar activity
The drag force in the residual atmosphere depends on solar activity, which changes over the 11-year solar cycle, the scientists say. The greater the solar activity, the greater the flow of solar particles reaches the Earth, the higher the resistance. It depends on the number of solar flares and coronal mass ejections, plasma flows that accompany them.
If the last solar cycle, which ended in December 2019, was very weak in activity with a long period of calm, then the new cycle, and especially as the last months of this year show, the number of eruptions on the Sun has significantly increased. And the upper layers of the Earth’s atmosphere are already feeling the effects of strong solar wind waves.
“High above the Earth, in the uppermost layers of the atmosphere, events are taking place that we do not fully understand. It is known for certain that the meeting of solar particles with the atmosphere causes it to rise. Denser air rises higher, which means more resistance is created for the flight of satellites. And although this density is not very high at the level of 400 km above the Earth, this updraft of air can still send satellites down,” says Stromm.
Threat to the ISS
ESA scientists had to correct the orbit of two satellites that were at an altitude of 430 km, 30 km higher than the ISS. By the way, the orbital station is also already suffering from changes in space weather caused by increased solar activity. The ISS has to adjust its trajectory frequently to maintain a stable orbit at an altitude of 400 km.
It is also known that 40 new Starlink satellites from SpaceX went out of orbit in February of this year and burned out due to a solar storm. Although these satellites have a working orbit at an altitude of 550 km, after launch they are at an altitude of 350 km and SpaceX specialists have to lift them using onboard engines. But scientists believe that even such satellites, which are very high, still remain vulnerable due to the unpredictable behavior of the Sun.
“I believe that all spacecraft at an altitude of 400 km will have problems in the near future. Including the ISS. The stations will have to constantly maneuver to stay afloat. Of course, the problems will affect hundreds of satellites in low Earth orbit, the number of which is significant has grown in recent years,” says Stromm.
Unexpected behavior of the Sun
According to scientists, many satellites do not have onboard engines, and therefore they will not be able to “live” for a long time in low orbit above the Earth and will fall into the atmosphere.
“No one expected such activity of the Sun, forecasts did not show this. But we have been seeing a huge number of sunspots, solar flares and coronal mass ejections lately. And this activity of the Sun will only increase, because in 2-3 years the solar maximum will come, then is the highest point of our star’s activity,” says Hugh Lewis of the University of Southampton, UK.
Already now they have to raise their satellites higher, Stromm said, and before the end of the year, many satellites may disappear if their orbits are not adjusted.
Some scientists see the current situation as a positive moment. They believe that in this way there will be less space debris from inoperative satellites in orbit. But at the same time, there’s the problem that falling satellites could damage still-operating craft in lower orbits, Lewis says.
Focus already wrote that the Sun grows monstrously huge spotthat faces the earth. Scientists are expecting a very powerful M9 class solar flare that could cause satellites in orbit and electronics on the planet to malfunction.
Also Focus wrote that the ISS had to conduct an evasive maneuver the wreckage of a Soviet satellitewhich was destroyed as a result of the testing of new Russian weapons.