The aurora borealis is one of nature’s most spectacular phenomena. It is a light show that occurs at high latitudes when particles from the upper atmosphere interact with energized particles from the magnetosphere. But it is not only people in high latitudes who can observe this phenomenon. The aurora borealis can also be seen at lower latitudes when solar activity reaches its peak.
However, as it turns out, the aurora borealis can be not only a beautiful sight, but also a risk factor for the satellites we all rely on so much. In February 2022, SpaceX launched 49 Starlink internet satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO). However, on the day of the launch, a coronal mass ejection – a large outburst of plasma ejected from the Sun – hit Earth. This caused a geomagnetic storm in the atmosphere at altitudes between 100 and 500 kilometers, the target range for Starlink.
This event threw a huge amount of electromagnetic energy directly into the Earth’s upper atmosphere. This produced a beautiful aurora borealis, but the energy also increased the density of the air. Higher air density can be dangerous for satellites in low orbit because it creates a lot of atmospheric drag, which can cause them to break up. Thirty-eight of the 49 Starlink satellites originally launched were subsequently lost due to atmospheric drag from the dense atmosphere, which pulled them back to Earth.
This is not the first time that the aurora borealis and solar storms have affected satellite operations and our life on Earth. Last year, when solar activity was at its peak, an increase in geomagnetic storms was seen, causing several disruptions to satellites and electrical grids.
The sun goes through a cycle from which its activity periodically increases and decreases. At the peak of the cycle, we see more sunspots on the Sun’s surface, more radiation emitted and more solar flares. Geomagnetic storms like the one that caused the Starlink destruction event are relatively common, especially when the sun reaches the peak of its 11-year cycle of increasing and decreasing activity.
In the previous cycle, which ended in 2019, there were 927 storms classified as moderate to weak – an average of one every five or so days. We are currently in a four-year solar cycle 25, but this one has already proven to be amazing. The maximum activity of cycle 25 was predicted in 2025, but solar activity has already exceeded it. This means we are seeing more geomagnetic storms, more auroras (and at lower latitudes than usual) and possibly more dangerous conditions for LEO satellites.
In light of these events, the question becomes: what can we do to protect our satellites and our electrical infrastructure from the effects of solar storms? One solution may be to improve the design and construction of satellites so that they can withstand higher air density and atmospheric drag. We can also use more reliable materials when building electrical grids and developing new technologies to prevent outages.
While the aurora borealis and solar storms can pose a threat to our technological infrastructure, they are also an amazing sight to behold in the night sky. And as astronomer Carl Sagan said, “We have made our planet a small dot in outer space, but it is still our home.” So we must protect it and our technological infrastructure to preserve our connection to space.