No Longer Geostationary, So Much : Rogue ZombieSats
“An out-of-control Intelsat satellite that stopped communicating with ground crews last month poses a threat to other satellites as it wanders about 36,000km above the earth. Dubbed Galaxy 15, the satellite stopped responding to ground controllers on April 5. Since then, engineers have sent more than 150,000 commands to the roving craft in an attempt to regain control of it. In what industry officials called an unprecedented event, Intelsat’s Galaxy 15 communications satellite has remained fully “on,” with its telecommunications payload still functioning. The satellite’s manufacturer has said an intense solar storm in early April may be to blame. On May 3, Intelsat will play what as of Friday appeared to be its last card by blasting Galaxy 15 with a more powerful signal intended not to salvage the satellite, but to force it into a complete shutdown. Even if the May 3 action succeeds, Galaxy 15 will remain a problem as it continues to wander the geostationary arc. But it is a problem that satellite operators know how to deal with. Industry experts say there are several dozen spacecraft, sometimes called “zombiesats,” that for various reasons were not removed from the geostationary highway before failing completely. Depending on their position at the time of failure, these satellites tend to migrate toward one of two libration points, at 105 degrees west and 75 degrees east. Figures compiled by XL Insurance of New York, an underwriter of space risks, say that more than 160 satellites are gathered at these two points.”
Above: A modern solar flare recorded Dec. 5, 2006, by the X-ray Imager onboard NOAA’s GOES-13 satellite. The flare was so intense, it actually damaged the instrument that took the picture. Researchers believe Carrington’s flare was much more energetic than this one.
A Carrington Event
“The strongest geomagnetic storm on record is the Carrington Event of August-September 1859, named after British astronomer Richard Carrington, who witnessed the instigating solar flare with his unaided eye. Geomagnetic activity triggered by the explosion electrified telegraph lines, shocking technicians and setting their telegraph papers on fire; Northern Lights spread as far south as Cuba and Hawaii; auroras over the Rocky Mountains were so bright, the glow woke campers who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning. “A contemporary repetition of the Carrington Event would cause … extensive social and economic disruptions,” the report warns. Power outages would be accompanied by radio blackouts and satellite malfunctions; telecommunications, GPS navigation, banking and finance, and transportation would all be affected. Some problems would correct themselves with the fading of the storm: radio and GPS transmissions could come back online fairly quickly. Other problems would be lasting: a burnt-out multi-ton transformer, for instance, can take weeks or months to repair. The total economic impact in the first year alone could reach $2 trillion, some 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina or, to use a timelier example, a few TARPs.”
Solar Flares and You
“Lanzerotti became aware of the effects of solar geomagnetic storms on terrestrial communications when a huge solar flare on August 4, 1972, knocked out long-distance telephone communication across Illinois. That event, in fact, caused AT&T to redesign its power system for transatlantic cables. A similar flare on March 13, 1989, provoked geomagnetic storms that disrupted electric power transmission from the Hydro Québec generating station in Canada, blacking out most of the province and plunging 6 million people into darkness for 9 hours; aurora-induced power surges even melted power transformers in New Jersey. In December 2005, X-rays from another solar storm disrupted satellite-to-ground communications and Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation signals for about 10 minutes. That may not sound like much, but as Lanzerotti noted, “I would not have wanted to be on a commercial airplane being guided in for a landing by GPS or on a ship being docked by GPS during that 10 minutes.” Experts who have studied the question say there is little to be done to protect satellites from a Carrington-class flare. In fact, a recent paper estimates potential damage to the 900-plus satellites currently in orbit could cost between $30 billion and $70 billion. The best solution: have a pipeline of comsats ready for launch.”
“When a large geomagnetic storm happens again, the most obvious victims will be satellites. Many communications satellites, such as Anik E1 and E2 in 1994 and Telstar 401 in 1997, have been compromised or lost in this way. A large solar storm can cause one to three years’ worth of satellite lifetime loss in a matter of hours and produce hundreds of glitches, ranging from errant but harmless commands to destructive electrostatic discharges. But at least our satellites have been specifically designed to function under the vagaries of space weather. According to studies, the magnetic storm of May 15, 1921, would have caused a blackout affecting half of North America had it happened today. A much larger storm, like that of 1859, could bring down the entire grid.”
Previously on Spectre
the 23rd Cycle
“The chronicle of telegraph, short-wave, satellite and electrical outages is a major reminder of the constancy of the space weather impact upon human technology.
August 28 – September 2, 1859 – American telegraphists had only a short time to puzzle over atmospheric electricity on their 1000-mile lines when in 1859, the Great Auroras of August 28 and September 4 blazed forth and lit up the skies of nearly every major city on the planet. It was one of the most remarkable displays ever seen in the United States up until that time. These aurora were so exceptional that the American Journal of Science and Arts published no fewer than 158 accounts from around the world describing what the display looked like, the telegraphic disruptions they produced, and assorted theoretical speculations. Normal business transactions requiring telegraphic exchanges were completely shut down in the major world capitals. In France, telegraphic connections were disrupted as sparks literally flew from the long transmission lines. There were even some near-electrocutions. In one instance, Fredrick Royce a telegraph operator in Washington D.C reported that, “During the auroral display, I was calling Richmond, and had one hand on the iron plate. Happening to lean towards the sounder, which is against the wall, my forehead grazed a ground wire. Immediately I received a very severe electric shock, which stunned me for an instant. An old man who was sitting facing me, and but a few feet distant, said he saw a spark of fire jump from my forehead to the shoulder. ”
May 13, 1921 – The prelude to this storm began with a major sunspot sighted on the limb of the sun vast enough to be seen with the naked eye through smoked glass. The spot was 94,000 miles long and 21,000 miles wide and by May 14th was near the center of the sun in prime location to unleash an earth-directed flare. The 3-degree magnetic bearing change among the five worst events recorded ended all communications traffic from the Atlantic Coast to the Mississippi. By 10:00 PM May 15, Washington DC was cut off telegraphically from the rest of the United States. Lines carrying more than 1000 volts of electricity ‘blown out fuses, injured electrical apparatus and done other things which had never been caused by any ground and ocean current known in the past’. The company would probably have to send ships to drag up the undersea cables to repair them. The electrical ocean currents had found the weakest spots in the cable insulation and caused severe damage. Apparently three of the Western Union transatlantic cables were affected. The entire signal and switching system of the New York Central Railroad below 125th street was put out of operation, followed by a fire in the control tower at 57th Street and Park Avenue.
April 29, 1937 – Magnetic storm ‘worst in century. Canada telegraph experiences severe disturbances. [New York Times 4/29 p. 23]
July 6, 1941 – Short wave blackouts during World War II
February 10, 1958 – The Great Aurora colored the skies over Chicago and Boston. In a foretaste of what would become a common, and expensive, problem decades later, the Explorer 1 satellite launched two weeks earlier, suddenly lost its primary radio system. The geomagnetic activity knocked out telecommunications circuits all across Canada, and although it was not visible in the New York area, it was so brilliant over Europe it aroused fears of conflagrations. The Monday storm cutoff the United States from radio contact with the rest of the world following an afternoon of ‘jumpy connections’ that ended with a complete black out by 3:00 PM, although contact with South America seemed unaffected. By evening, radio messages to Europe could occasionally be sent and received. Radio and TV viewers in the Boston area, however, were reportedly having their own amusing problems. For three hours, they fiddled with their TVs and radios as their sets went haywire, at times blanking out entirely, or changing stations erratically. Channel 7 viewers began getting Channel 7 broadcasts from Manchester Vermont, while Channel 4 viewers received ghostly blends of the local Boston station and one in Providence, Rhode Island. Viewers had just finished watching the ‘Lawrence Welk Show’ at 9:30 PM and were preparing to watch a nationally-broadcast TV movie ‘Meeting in Paris’ on Channel 4, or listen to a boxing match. What they hadn’t counted on was that they would get to do both at the same time. During a passionate love scene, the audio portion of the movie was replaced by the blow-by-blow details of the boxing match: “Smith gave him a left to the jaw and a short right hook to the button. — But darling we love each other so much. — A left hook to the jaw flattened Smith and he’s down for the count. — Kiss me again my sweet.” [New York Times 2/12 p. 16, Boston Globe 2/11 p.27]
March 13-14 1989 – Solar storm triggered the Quebec Blackout that affected 5 million people for up to 12 hours. Geostationary satellites, which used the Earth’s magnetic field to determine their orientation, had to be manually controlled to keep them from literally flipping upside down as the orientation of the magnetic field became disturbed and changed direction. Records show that some low altitude, high-inclination, and polar-orbiting satellites experienced uncontrolled tumbling. [New York Times 3/13 p.1 Boston Globe 3/14 p.6, EOS Transactions 11/14 p. 1479]
October 29, 2003 – This Halloween Storm spawned auroras that were seen over most of North America. Extensive satellite problems were reported, including the loss of the $450 million Midori-2 research satellite. Highly publicized in the news media. A huge solar storm impacted the Earth, just over 19 hours after leaving the sun. This is probably the second fastest solar storm in historic times, only beaten by the perfect solar storm in the year 1859 which spent an estimated 17 hours in transit.
November 4, 2003 – One of the most powerful x-ray flares ever detected , it swamped the sensors of dozens of satellites, causing satellite operations anomalies, but no aurora. Originally classified as an X28 flare, it was upgrade by OAA scientists to X34 a month later. Astronauts hid deep within the body of the International Space Station, but still reported radiation effects and ocular ‘shooting stars’. Highly publicized in the news media but produced no aurora. It was also not seen as a white-light flare.”