Satellites could be under threat from enormous space hurricanes

19 Sep 2017

Solar flares erupting from the sun. Image: Lady.Lyonnesse/Shutterstock

To better prepare our telecommunications satellites for the rigours of space, new research is helping us to understand space hurricanes.

While hurricanes pose enough problems for people down on Earth, spacetech companies and astronomers are more concerned with the effects of space hurricanes.

Formed from fluctuations in solar flares, these powerful, invisible storms can potentially wreak havoc on satellites trying to go through them. However, new research may be able to help us predict them with much higher accuracy.

In a paper published to the Journal of Geophysical Research – Space Physics, researcher Katariina Nykyri from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in the US has pinpointed how small fluctuations in solar wind can affect a space hurricane’s speed and strength.

As she explained, space hurricanes are formed by a phenomenon known as Kelvin-Helmholtz (KH) instability, which occurs when the solar wind sweeps across the Earth’s magnetic boundary, producing large vortices of up to 40,000km in size.

When solar wind speeds are faster, the team said, the fluctuations become more powerful, seeding larger space hurricanes that can transport more plasma.

Could aid nuclear fusion development

Nykyri said that by increasing our understanding of how solar wind conditions affect space hurricanes, we may one day be able to provide better space-weather prediction, and set the stage for safer satellite navigation through radiation belts.

“KH waves can alter the direction and properties of coronal mass ejections, which eventually affect near-Earth space weather,” Nykyri explained.

“For accurate space-weather prediction, it is crucial to understand the detailed mechanisms that affect the growth and properties of space hurricanes.”

She added that this is because solar wind can excite ultra-low frequency waves by triggering KH instability, which can energise radiation belt particles.

Aside from helping future satellites navigate their way through the solar system, understanding KH waves could help us in the development of nuclear fusion energy systems.

A recent discovery by Nykyri and her fellow researchers showed that the waves provide an important way of heating plasma by millions of degrees Celsius, and might also be used for transport-barrier generation in fusion plasmas.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic