SPACECAST: Space Weather System for Protecting Satellites

February 27th, 2013

An international effort including Europe, the United States and Japan is focused on protecting the global satellite network from Sun-driven space weather.

Satellites can be damaged by high energy charged particles in the Earth’s radiation belts, and during solar energetic particle (SEP) events.

With the growing reliance on satellite services, new vulnerabilities to space weather and previous events that have led to loss of service.

Called SPACECAST, this physics-based predictive system for the outer Van Allen radiation belt uses observations of the solar wind and interplanetary magnetic field to provide forecasts of the radiation conditions for the next 3 hours.

Solar maximum

The Sun is expected to reach solar maximum this year, heralding a peak in sunspot activity and, within a few years, an increase in geomagnetic storms. Within the past decade, the number of satellites in orbit has soared.

Indeed, these satellites form the technological backbone of an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars per year. But many currently active satellites were launched in the past few years and are flying with new technologies that have been as yet untested in the harsh conditions presented by the peak of the solar cycle.

Societal dependencies

Shifts in satellite construction techniques, including a reliance on off-the-shelf components rather than those designed to be hardened against radiation, mean that some modern equipment may remain vulnerable to solar activity.

What’s more, societal dependencies on the information provided by satellites, including the Global Positioning System (GPS) time stamps used to drive automatic high-frequency stock market trading, mean that the potential consequences of satellites being damaged by solar activity have increased.

SPACECAST is not designed to predict large coronal mass ejections or fast-moving shocks. Rather, it is meant to address the more regular threats posed by solar activity.

The system has been running largely without interruption since November 2011, providing hourly updates year-round. SPACECAST can be used to warn satellite operators of solar activity that could damage their equipment.

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By Leonard David