Scientists worry about solar superstorm.
Sun capable of unleashing geomagnetic blast that could cost tens of billions.
By Leonard David
Senior space writer
updated 12:04 p.m. ET May 2, 2006
Hypothetically thinking, Odenwald said, what about the scenario of an 1859-type superstorm taking place in 2012 at the peak of the next sunspot cycle?
Of the nearly 300 geosynchronous Earth-orbiting (GEO) satellites in operation, “such a storm may only actually kill a few dozen of the oldest systems, but will likely reduce the operating life of all the other satellites by 5 to 10 years,” Odenwald said. “That would, in the long run, be a bigger economic catastrophe.”
Odenwald projects billions of dollars of lost GEO satellite profit during an 1859-caliber superstorm. The model he has used to reach ballpark numbers includes a realistic treatment of how leased transponders are actually shifted to neighboring satellites from failing “host” satellites.
The estimated profit loss tallies about $30 billion, Odenwald said. That figure is expected to climb higher as he mixes in various types of catastrophic satellite anomalies.
Future work will include collateral economic impacts, pushing the profit loss upwards of $70 billion, Odenwald suggested. “The GEO satellites themselves generate about $97 billion in revenue each year. A superstorm may well eat up most of that revenue for at least a few years.”
Odenwald said that his research approach, coupled with more knowledge about how satellites are affected by severe solar storms — some of which is proprietary or classified — will help boost his statistical confidence level.
A superstorm would influence operations below GEO, among lower-altitude satellites. For one, such a powerful outburst would disrupt civil and government navigation systems like the Global Positioning System. GPS satellite signals travel through a part of Earth’s atmosphere called the ionosphere to receivers on or near Earth.
GPS is a worldwide radio-navigation system formed from a constellation of satellites and their ground stations. GPS uses the satellites as reference points to calculate positions on the ground accurate to a matter of meters. Space weather disturbances in the ionosphere seriously degrade GPS accuracy.
In his work, Odenwald suggests that roughly 100 low Earth-orbiting spacecraft would experience an earlier-than-normal reentry. The storm would heat Earth’s upper atmosphere, causing it to expand and therefore increase the drag on satellites.
“The $100 billion international space station may lose significant altitude, placing it in critical need for reboosting by an amount potentially outside the range of typical space shuttle operations, which are in any case scheduled to end in 2010,” Odenwald and Green reported.
“So far as I know, my study is the first of its kind, and it leads to some very interesting limits to the dollar impact of severe storms on our satellite industry,” Odenwald said.
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