A competition to improve weather forecasts before the onset of solar storms

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Satellite time has so far experienced only one geomagnetic storm. Dubbed the Halloween storm because it hit Earth in the last week of October 2003, the CME affected about 60% of NASA’s orbit at the time, according to the after that check at NOAA. A Japanese spacecraft lost contact with Earth, and never recovered – its electronics must have been fried by a burst of solar particles.

Thomas Berger, now director of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Space Weather Technology, Research, and Education Center, was a young astrophysicist at the time. He remembers people crying about losing satellites.

Unlike aircraft, satellites are not routinely observed by radar in real time. Their movements are being calculated for the next few days, based on repeated observations by several ground-based radars and visual sensors scattered around the world. When the weather in space warms up in the upper atmosphere, this density throws off those predictions, and it can take time for the pilots to find the satellites again.

Berger says: “After the Halloween storm in 2003, all the satellite data was lost. “It took three days of surgery to find and reassess all these things. Some of the satellites were ten kilometers below their normal path and maybe a thousand kilometers away from their expected location.”

When we don’t know where satellites—and pieces of space debris—are, it gets confusing. It means that pilots can no longer predict potential collisions – events that would not only destroy satellites but also create thousands of new pieces of space debris, resulting in the destruction of other satellites.

The Halloween storm fortunately passed through without orbital damage. But sometimes, satellite operators may not be so lucky.

Much has changed in near-Earth space since 2003. The number of operational satellites orbiting our planet has increased from 800 back then to 9,000 today, and low Earth orbit has seen a significant increase in traffic. The amount of space debris has also increased. 20 years ago, the US Space Surveillance Network found 11,000 pieces of such debris. Today, according to NASA, it observes more than 35,000 objects. With so many things perishing in the world, many collision avoidance measures are necessary to keep things safe.

And it’s only a matter of time before Earth is hit by massive CMEs. The Halloween storm was packed with more energy than the “nonsense” that destroyed the Starlink satellites. However it was only one tenth of the strength of the Carrington Event. Orbital destruction – not to mention destruction on the land– it could be much worse.

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