SPACE WEATHER WARNING ISSUED BY ASIC
Tue 18 May 2010
The SunMore variable and extreme weather patterns are not restricted to Earth - cosmic weather is getting worse as well.
More variable and extreme weather patterns are not restricted to Earth - cosmic weather is getting worse as well. That’s to say, solar The activity is increasing again after a long period of relative inactivity and is expected to peak around 2012.
sun goes through an 11 year cycle of activity, the most direct evidence of which is the number of sunspots . In 2008, when we were in the “Solar minimum ( period of low solar activity), the number of days when no sunspots were recorded was the highest for about a century. They have now started to increase significantly and there have only been six days so far this year when no sunspots were observed.
“As solar activity increases, we will also get a stronger solar wind and more solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs),” explains David Wade, space underwriter with Atrium Space Insurance Consortium (ASIC) at Lloyd’s. “These have different effects but each leads to charged particles and radiation being released from the sun and travelling into the solar system.”
Increased solar activity
Evidence of increased solar activity can be seen in brighter displays of northern lights. The spectacular phenomenon is caused by solar wind being funneled along the earth’s magnetic field lines. But increased solar activity can cause all sorts of problems, from interfering with satellite systems to damaging power transmission lines. “More bizarrely solar storms can even lead to the erosion of oil and gas pipelines due to potential differences that are created within different points of the Earth’s surface,” Wade says.
Robin Gubby, senior space systems analyst at ASIC, says virtually any in-orbit satellite can potentially be affected by different types of solar activity.
Large proton flares cause a drop in a satellite’s solar array power, which is permanent because the radiation has degraded the solar cell energy conversion capability. They may also trigger a switch-off of some pieces of equipment; occasionally the discharge can cause catastrophic failure.
“Space weather can affect satellites in various ways, but solar protons, and particularly solar proton flares, are a prime cause of solar array degradation,” Gubby says. “Some satellites are more sensitive than others to certain kinds of space environment phenomena; also it depends to some extent on which orbit the satellite is in, and how old it is.”
But the potential for catastrophic loss does exist and Gubby contributed to a Lloyd’s Realistic Disaster Scenario which examines the possible outcome of a big proton flare affecting a large number of commercial satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Realistic Disaster Scenarios stress test both individual Lloyd’s syndicates and the market as a whole to see how they stand up to chains of accumulated exposure in very extreme cases.
Cosmic weather can cause problems down here on the ground as well. Professor Mike Hapgood, head of the space environment group at the Science & Technology Facilities Council, says electrical power grids can fail when space weather creates an electrical field on the Earth’s surface. “Long transmission lines are most vulnerable to the effect and that could be a problem with renewable energy sources that are very remote from users and require long transmission lines,” he says. “There was the case in Quebec on March 13 1989 where the grid went down for eight hours as a result of a space weather event.”
Other potential ground level problems include so called “single event effects” that happen when cosmic rays hit an electronic chip and change its state. That could mean interference with software or hardware that’s important in safety critical systems in aviation, for example, or even car airbags.
Radio bursts from the sun could disrupt wireless systems to do with mobile phones and/or broadband, or control systems Professor Hapgood says. “The use of wireless technology has developed at such a pace and during a period of relatively benign solar activity that we don’t really know what could happen."
Satellite operators can of course tune into the space weather forecast put out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/) to see if increased activity is on the way and postpone any critical operations.
The big problem at the moment, according to Gubby, is that we don’t have a good early warning system.“There are a few satellites such as NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer that can give about half-an-hour’s notice of an incoming CME, but the higher-energy charged particles associated with a flare are travelling close to light speed,"he says.
Better forecasts are on the way. The Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO) satellite launched by NASA in February this year will soon be downloading 1500 gigabytes of data every day, which will be used to analyse the behaviour of solar phenomena, and will soon contribute to better prediction of events like flares, CMEs and magnetospheric disturbances (the magnetosphere is the region determined by the Earth’s magnetic field, solar wind and the interplanetary magnetic field.)
Underwriter David Wade says he expects to see an increased level of anomalies on in-orbit satellites in the years ahead. “Whether these directly translate into [insurance] claims is not so clear cut and a lot depends on the policy conditions, he says. “But yes, we are on risk for such effects.”
 Sunspots are temporary phenomena on the surface of the Sun that appear visibly as dark spots compared to surrounding regions. They are caused by intense magnetic activity, which results in areas of reduced surface temperature.
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