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Predicting space weather could save satellites

This image is a view of a quarter of the earth from space. It's mostly blue, with some glaciers.
Earth from space. Photo: NASA

A new space weather model under development at Los Alamos National Laboratory could help give a 24-hour warning before a storm of charged particles from the sun bombards crucial satellites, potentially knocking them out of service.

The big picture: These "killer electrons" move more erratically during solar storms — a type of space weather where particles from the sun smack into Earth's magnetic field — so being able to predict that variability is key for spacecraft operators.

The impact: If this model — which is still in its testing phase — lives up to its promise, it will give mission controllers the time to either get their satellites out of harm's way or temporarily shut them down before the electrons hit.

  • "These electrons are highly penetrating because they have really high speeds, very close to light-speed," Yue Chen, one of the scientists who helped develop the model, tells Axios.
  • "So, they can easily penetrate the shielding of the satellites, and they can bury themselves inside the electronics."

Chen is the lead author of a new study detailing the model in the journal Space Weather.

How it works: The model uses satellite measurements from a Department of Energy satellite and a weather satellite from NOAA to predict the erratic motions of these potentially harmful electrons.

The bottom line: If scientists can figure out how to better predict these kinds of events, we can protect satellites from "killer electrons" and the havoc they can wreak. However, there are still other space weather hazards that satellite operators will have to contend with.