Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Our growing reliance on satellite technology, and it's vulnerability to solar flares. Why it matters.

Electronic Armageddon? Congress Worries That Solar Flares Could Spell Disaster
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."

It cites electromagnetic pulses from geomagnetic or solar storms as the big threat to our energy distribution grid, and demands "an order directing the Electric Reliability Organization to submit … reliability standards adequate to protect the bulk-power system from any reasonably foreseeable geomagnetic storm event."

Solar storms occur when sunspots on our star erupt and spew out flumes of charged particles that can damage power systems. The sun's activity typically follows an 11-year cycle, and it looks to be coming out of a slump and gearing up for an active period.

"The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity," said Richard Fisher, head of NASA's Heliophysics Division. "At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms." [...]

I've posted previously about EMP dangers, both man-made (military attack or terrorism) and naturally occurring (solar storms and flares). That congress has decided to protect our infrastructure from these threats is hopefully a good thing (that the money is spent wisely). But I would like to examine another aspect of this threat, that deserves special scrutiny; our growing dependence on satellite technology, and it's vulnerability to the sun.

The following link starts off describing the Quebec power failure of 1989, that was caused by a solar flare. The Quebec power grid had extensions reaching far North, where in inducted electricity from the flare. One of their main transformers was permanently damaged. What is even more alarming is, that the Northeast United states power grid was also almost collapsed, which would have resulted in 50 million Americans without power. The Quebec failure is now a textbook case as an example of the destructiveness of solar flares on modern power grids.

While the Quebec portion of the article is certainly worth reading, I'm going to excerpt a portion from the latter part of the article, that deals with satellite technology. It shows how our dependency on satellites has grown by leaps and bounds, and how it represents a new, growing vulnerability:

Chapter 1 : A Conflagration of Storms
[...] Why should we care that we are now once again living under 'sunspot maximum' conditions? After all, we have already weathered at least five of these solar activity cycles since the end of World War II. What is different about the world today is that we are substantially more reliant upon computers and telecommunications to run our commerce, and even our forms of entertainment and recreation. In 1981, at the peak of solar cycle 21, there were 15 communication satellites in orbit. Cellular phones were rare and there were 800,000 PCs sold in the U.S. with 300 hosts on the Internet. By the time the peak of solar cycle 22 came around in 1989, there were 102 communication satellites, and 3 million cellular phone users in the United States. With the new Intel 80486-based PCs, you could send e-mail to your choice of 300,000 host machines on the Internet.

As we arrive at the peak of the 23rd sunspot cycle in 2000-2001, however, we enter a very different world far more reliant on what used to be the luxuries of the Space Age. By 2000, 349 communication satellites orbit the Earth supporting over $60 billion of commerce. Over 100 million people have cellular phones, and Global Positioning System handsets are a commonplace for people working, or camping, 'off road'. By 2003, 400 million people will routinely use wireless data transmission via satellite channels. There will be over 10 million Internet hosts with 38% of US households Internet-connected.


As if to emphasize today's exuberance and expectations, 'Individual Investor' magazine announced on its cover 'The Sky's the Limit: In the 21st century satellites will connect the globe'. The International telecommunications Union in Geneva has predicted that by 2005, the demand for voice and data transmission services will increase to $1.2 trillion. The fraction carried by satellite services will reach a staggering $80 billion.

To meet this demand, many commercial companies are launching; not just individual satellites, but entire networks of them with names like 'Iridium', 'Teledesic', 'Skybridge' and 'SpaceWay'. The total cost of these systems alone represents a hardware investment of $35 billion between 1998 and 2004. The actual degree of vulnerability of these systems to solar storms is unknown, and will probably vary in a complex way depending on the kind of technology they use, and their deployment in space. They do, however, share some disturbing characteristics: They are all light-weight, sophisticated, built at the lowest cost, and following only a handful of design types replicated dozens and even hundreds of times, often with off-the-shelf electronics.

It is common to base future expectations on recent past experiences: "Past is prologue" some say. Increasingly, these past experiences with, for example, commercial space technology, do not extend back much beyond the last solar maximum in 1989-1990. So, when we wonder why infrequent events such as solar storms aren't more noticeable, we have to remind ourselves that most of our experience comes from times when the Sun was simply not very active, and when we were a lot less technologically vulnerable. [...]

So we can see a dramatic increase in satellite usage in the eleven year intervals in solar maximums. This article projected figures up until 2005. What is our satellite usage now? Here are some contemporary figures:

How many communications satellites were launched?
1,107 satellites provide civilian communications and 792 military communications. Some seven hundred of them were placed into geosynchronous orbit.

Civilian and military communications satellites represent the most numerous kind of spacecrafts launched.

(See lists of civilian Communications Satellites, of Military Communications Satelites and of Spacecrafts in Geostationary Orbit.)

Follow the link for detailed lists of those satellites.

If we consider non-communication satellites as well, the list gets longer:

How Many Satellites Are Orbiting the Earth?
Satellites are tracked by United States Space Surveillance Network (SSN), which has been tracking every object in orbit over 10 cm (3.937 inches) in diameter since it was founded in 1957. There are approximately 3,000 satellites operating in Earth orbit, according to the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), out of roughly 8,000 man-made objects in total. In its entire history, the SSN has tracked more than 24,500 space objects orbiting Earth. The majority of these have fallen into unstable orbits and incinerated during reentry. The SSN also keeps track which piece of space junk belongs to which country.


As space technology matured, satellites were launched for military and commercial purposes. The price of satellite launches has dropped to as low as a few million dollars for light satellites, and a few tens of millions for heavy satellites. This put satellite technology within the reach of many nations and international companies.

Satellites have an operating lifespan between five and 20 years. As of 2008, the former Soviet Union and Russia had nearly 1,400 satellites in orbit, the USA about 1,000, Japan more than 100, China about 80, France over 40, India more than 30, Germany almost 30, the UK and Canada 25, and at least ten each from Italy, Australia, Indonesia, Brazil, Sweden, Luxembourg, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea. [...]

So humankind is using and depending on satellite technology to a degree never seen before, and most of the growth of this usage has occurred in the past few decades.

We have gone from 15 communication satellites in 1981, to 1,899 communication satellites in 2010. We have yet to experience a severe solar storm, with all this satellite technology. Are we ready for it? Military satellites may be reinforced with extra shielding to withstand EMPs. But what about the many light-weight "cheap" satellites made with off the shelf parts? Are we ready to suddenly do without all this technology we've come to depend on, if many or most of these satellites get fried in a solar storm?

Related Links:

As the Sun Awakens, NASA Keeps a Wary Eye on Space Weather

National Geographic Explorer: "Electronic Armageddon"

Solar Storms Could Be Earth's Next Katrina

The Sun Also Flares

No comments: