A powerful solar storm that swept across Earth on Monday (Feb. 27) forced SpaceX to delay a Starlink launch from Florida and temporarily disrupted the operations of several Canadian oil rigs as GPS signals were too inaccurate.
SpaceX eventually launched these satellites, the first batch of 21 second generation Starlink Internet Spacecraft, at 18:13 ET (2313 GMT) Monday after the geomagnetic storm, classified by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as a strong G3 storm, subsided. Liftoff occurred approximately 4.5 hours after the originally scheduled launch time.
SpaceX has partnered with NOAA since a mishap last February, in which the company lost a group of 40 satellites after sending them straight into a relatively mild geomagnetic storm. When huge amounts of charged solar particles reach our planet, the interactions between these particles will also Earth’s upper atmosphere cause the atmosphere to swell. When that happens, the density of gases increases at higher altitudes and spacecraft experience more air resistance. Since SpaceX launching the Starlink craft at very low altitudes and then using the satellite’s on-board propulsion to raise the orbit, this extra drag proved too much for the ill-fated spacecraft.
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Since the 2022 incident, the company has not only been paying more attention space weather reports but has also provided data from Starlink’s onboard sensors to help NOAA improve its space weather forecasting models.
The G3 storm that caused Monday’s launch delay was the result of a combination of factors. The last few days, streams of rapid sun-wind has flowed towards Earth from a so-called coronal holewhich is actually an opening in the sunits magnetic field. On top of that, two coronal mass ejections (CME), huge bursts of solar plasma, emerged from an active region, or a sunspotover the weekend and reached our planet in quick succession on Sunday and Monday (February 26 and 27).
The solar storm created a party of aurora displays across North America and Europe, with sightings reported from South Dakota, Wisconsin and even California. Dedicated aurora chasers also managed to capture the arrival of the southern polar lights over Australia’s westernmost metropolis, Perth.
Aurora from Death Valley on 27.2.23. Here is the panoramic picture – 4 pictures put together in Ps. #aurora #deathvalley #spaceweather pic.twitter.com/ohuCC5bTMM28 February 2023
However, SpaceX was not the only company embarrassed by the geomagnetic storm. Canadian exploration geologist Chris Mason reported on Facebook (opens in a new tab) that a drilling rig in Saskatchewan, where he is currently deployed, had to temporarily shut down operations due to the solar storm.
“I’ve been a well site geologist for close to 30 years, and last night/this morning was the first time we temporarily halted drilling operations due to a solar storm,” Mason said in the post. “The electronics in the tool that tell us the direction and inclination of the drill bit received so much interference from the storm that the readings were unreliable.”
Mason added that several rigs in the area were affected.
Commenting on the post on her Twitter account, American solar physicist and space weather expert Tamitha Skov explained that the rigs were affected by the disruption of GPS signals, which they use for precise navigation.
“The ongoing strong #solarstorm is affecting #GPS and has even caused temporary suspension of drilling platforms due to the unreliability of even precision GPS signals and due to the GICs (geomagnetically induced currents in the ground),” Skov said in the tweet (opens in a new tab). “Events like these will become more frequent as we ascend towards solar maximum.”
Auroras as well as disruptions like those experienced by SpaceX and the oil companies in Canada are likely to become more regular over the next two years as solar cyclethe 11-year ebb and flow starits generation of sunspots, solar flares and CMEs, are moving towards their maximum.
Earlier this year, the European Space Agency reported that some of its low orbit satellites were losing altitude because of the bloated atmosphere. The current solar cycle, the 25th since records began, is also shape up to become much stronger than what NOAA and NASA originally predicted.
Monday’s storm belonged to the third strongest category, according to NOAA’s classification system with five degrees. G3 storms can occur up to 200 times per solar cycle and can cause minor problems with power grids and orbiting spacecraft, as well as disrupting satellite and radio signals.
The more powerful G4 and G5 storms have not yet occurred during this cycle. While a G4 is still relatively common, with up to 100 hitting Earth each solar cycle, the most severe G5 class only occurs about four times per cycle. G5 storms can cause widespread power outages and even damage power transformers.
In such powerful storms, spacecraft operators can completely lose track of their satellites as the bloated atmosphere would affect the satellite’s orbits. Experts worry that the near-Earth environment, with the rapidly growing number of operational satellites as well as fragments of space debris, can become extremely vulnerable in a G5 storm. The loss of control over functioning satellites and the lack of awareness of the location of pieces of space debris could lead to collisions and trigger further growth in the amount of debris littering near-Earth space.
However, the current geomagnetically stormy weather is expected to ease over the coming days, according to the UK Space Weather Authority. Met Office (opens in a new tab). However, one large sunspot, called AR3234, is still facing our planet, and another is emerging in the sun’s northeast, so some extra, mostly smaller storms could appear, the Met Office said.
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