The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is hosting an exercise on space weather threats to satellite operations

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is hosting an exercise on space weather threats to satellite operations

Participants evaluate current and future space weather services for the satellite industry

October 27, 2023 – Satellite orbital drag and energetic particles topped the list of space weather threats to low-Earth orbit satellites discussed at a Satellite Environment Test exercise held in Boulder, Colorado, this week. Space weather scientists, satellite owner operators, tracking and maneuvering service providers, and related commercial service providers have come together to better understand how satellite companies plan for and respond to space weather. During the three-day meeting, experts also evaluated the satellite industry's current space weather products and services offered by NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) and other service providers.

Space weather can disrupt satellites used for commercial communications, global positioning, Earth observation, and national security. Increased orbital drag caused by space weather reduces the lifetime of low-Earth orbit satellites and complicates space traffic coordination. One notable example occurred in February 2022, when space weather caused 38 Starlink satellites to be lost after launch. Besides the increased risk of clouds with increased solar activity, particles active in radiation belts or associated with solar storms can cause damage to electronic circuits and components in satellites.

Table exercise

During the tabletop exercise, participants were handed a scenario modeled after a previous Earth-directed coronal mass ejection and discussed actions that satellite operators might take and potential impacts on operations.

“Quantifying the impact of space weather on satellites due to the extreme radiation environment and changes in atmospheric density will help us prioritize missions to improve our space weather models and design operational products that better meet the needs of modern space commerce,” Tzu said. Wei Fang, Ph.D., is a co-organizer of the experimental exercise and a space scientist at SWPC.






Space weather experts are collaborating with the satellite community in SWPC's first satellite environment test exercise. October 25, 2023, Boulder, Colorado (NOAA)

Many satellite industry representatives have expressed concerns about the economic losses incurred due to space weather, including reduced satellite life, launch costs to replace satellites, and increased maneuvering for collision avoidance or orbit maintenance. The biggest problem many LEO operators report at the test stand is atmospheric drag, but their list of space weather concerns is long. SWPC and the satellite industry hope that this test will improve the modeling of the cloud environment and atmospheric radiation; Improving space weather nowcasts, probabilistic forecasts and long-range forecasts; Better information about the duration of the event; Access to real-time data; and improved archiving of modeling and monitoring data.





SWO scientist Erin Lynch provides an overview of space weather observing and commercial data software.

SWO scientist Erin Lynch provides an overview of space weather observing and commercial data software. October 26, 2023 (NOAA)

“Better understanding the impacts of space weather on constellation and tracking operators can determine next steps to improve our neutral density services and ultimately lead to better space traffic coordination,” Fang said. “Today’s collaboration between industry, researchers and forecasters is critical as low-Earth orbit satellite constellations proliferate over the next decade.”

Growing demand for satellite broadband, data services and real-time Earth observation has fueled the rapidly growing commercial space industry in low Earth orbit. Companies are actively creating large constellations of small satellites in low Earth orbit, with more than 7,000 satellites currently in place, according to satellite trackers. Based on approved and planned deployments, this number is expected to rise significantly to 58,000 satellites by 2030.

Purchase NOAA commercial satellites and data

Experts on NOAA's satellites are working to provide more and better observations to help improve space weather forecasts and services. Erin Lynch, Ph.D., of NOAA's Space Weather Observatory Office (SWO), spoke about NOAA's Space Weather Observation Mission, scheduled to launch in 2025. She said the environmental satellite will fly with a suite of instruments to detect coronal mass ejections and make measurements Real-time solar wind and interplanetary magnetic field. Data from this satellite will be used by SWPC to provide accurate and timely forecasts, warnings and alerts.

SWO works collaboratively with SWPC to evaluate its requirements and determine the best approach to meet its data needs. NOAA obtains space weather measurements through a combination of NOAA space missions, commercial data procurement, and agreements with domestic and international partners to share space weather data and host instruments. NOAA is implementing the Space Weather Next program to ensure long-term viability and enhance observations to meet SWPC needs. NOAA began its commercial data procurement program in 2016, contracting with the growing commercial space industry to acquire space-based environmental monitoring data.

Also during the event, SWPC Director Clinton Wallace announced the launch of a solar cycle forecasting pilot product with an updated forecast for Solar Cycle 25. This news was well received by the satellite community, with experts commenting that updating the monthly forecast would aid in mission planning. Furthermore, SWPC leadership discussed its goal of revising NOAA's space weather metrics to improve space weather risk communication.




Pictured: SWPC space scientist Tzu Wei Fang, Ph.D., and SWPC Director Clinton Wallace answer questions in a satellite environment testing exercise.

SWPC space scientist Tzu-Wei Fang, Ph.D., and SWPC Director Clinton Wallace answer questions in a satellite environment testing exercise. October 26, 2023 (NOAA)

The Satellite Environment Test Exercise is organized and sponsored by NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center, the Space Weather Monitoring Office, and the National Centers for Environmental Information. NOAA's test platforms provide a proven way for researchers, forecasters and end users to work side by side to move technologies and applications to operational platforms as quickly as possible. NOAA currently operates 12 different test bases.




Pictured: SWPC Service Coordinator Sean Dahl takes test participants on a tour of the forecast operations area.

SWPC Service Coordinator Shawn Dahl takes test attendees on a tour of the forecast operations area. October 24, 2023 (NOAA)

NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center is the official source for space weather forecasts, watches, warnings, and alerts. Visit www.spaceweather.gov for updates.

For questions or comments on this story, please contact Maureen O'Leary, National Weather Service (NWS) Public Affairs, NWS.PA@noaa.gov.

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