Much ado about nothing
Solar storms have little impact on modern technology, experts say
February 15, 2007
The sun shows us its powers in many forms, and it's clear the possible effects of those forces on communications worry many people. But should they be worried?
Experts say times have changed and we are more prepared for the sun's activity, which can awe most people when one thinks of its scope.
Every 10 to 11 years, for example, the sun reaches a period of high activity, during which it flings out massive amounts of its material in a dramatic display. Huge fonts of the superheated gases that the sun is made of spew outward from the orb's surface, fiery geysers that can dwarf the size of the Earth.
Along with these solar flares, as they are known, the sun throws off intense waves of radiation that travel through space. Although the sun is always bathing the Earth with radiation particles, commonly referred to as the solar wind, these solar storms are most notable for their observable effects.
"One effect is the aurora borealis," astronomer Sara Poirier of the Ontario Science Centre museum told CBC News Online, talking about the phenomenon commonly referred to as the northern lights.
"They get very intense [during solar storms] and because of our position under the Earth's magnetic field, Canada has the best view."
But the impact of the solar radiation isn't always as benign as the ghostly display of light, Poirier said.
In 1994, the Anik E2 satellite was hit by such a storm, rendering it inoperable. Television, radio and telephone communications were disrupted, and even the CBC was knocked off the air.
That's a risk commonly faced by communications satellites in particular, according to Robert Zee, the director of the Space Flight Laboratory at the University of Toronto.
Because communications satellites are often positioned outside of the most protective parts of the Earth's magnetic field, they are exposed to radiation from the sun as well as cosmic radiation that can come from anywhere in the universe, Zee told CBC News Online.
"At an orbit of about 36,000 kilometres, where most communications satellites are located, they're subject to solar wind and solar storms," he said.
The effect on a satellite that gets hit with a wave of radiation can vary, Zee said.
One of the more common effects is that a value in the electronic memory can be reversed, which can throw off calculations or functions. Another common problem is that a circuit becomes "stuck" and the system needs to be turned on and off to reset it.
Problem can be avoided
Both of these problems can be avoided by using electronic components that are "hardened" against radiation, but unprotected commercial components are also sometimes used in satellites because they are faster and cheaper than the more durable counterparts, Zee said.
Roger Tinley, vice-president of space systems for Telesat — which made the Anik E2 satellite — told CBC News Online that technology has advanced to a point where concerns about those sorts of malfunctions being triggered by solar or cosmic radiation are virtually nonexistent in modern systems.
That's because modern satellites tend to use radiation-hardened components and are clad in shielding.
"The designs have been strengthened over the years," Tinley said. "In the 1980s, they wouldn't have concentrated on the inside of the unit so much. The emphasis was on shielding the outside of the unit."
But that has changed, with layers of metal placed on sensitive components to block any radiation that might penetrate the shielded hull of a satellite, he noted.
Yet, the perception that satellites and their communications are vulnerable to solar radiation lingers among the public, Tinley said.
"When there's a storm, it ends up in the media that communications can be disrupted," so the perception remains, although the technology has progressed beyond the point where it is a concern, Tinley said.
"When nothing happens, no one reports that."
The average person on the ground need not worry about solar or cosmic radiation knocking out their cellphones or personal computers, Poirier added.
Zee agreed: "You'd be more likely to win the lottery."
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