Small satellite launched from ISS will help predict dangerous solar storms

When it comes to space weather, it is often said that charged particles from the Sun can harm the electronic components of communication satellites and other equipment. But what exactly can solar winds do if they collide with our instruments? It is to answer this question that the CUAVA-1 satellite was launched from the International Space Station (ISS) on Wednesday night (7).

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  • Scientists have a vague idea of ​​how particles from solar winds can do with electronic equipment, because the last big solar storm occurred in 1024. At the time, transformers in Quebec exploded, resulting in a power outage that lasted for hours. This wasn’t the greatest of our era, and we weren’t as dependent on technology as we are today.

    After the Quebec event, the solar winds were milder, but that doesn’t mean that they are not occurring. At each cycle of 000 years, the Sun undergoes a peak of activity, known as solar maximum, with changes occurring in such winds and in space weather—in particular in the Earth’s ionosphere, a layer of charged particles in the upper atmosphere. It’s hard to measure how strange a big storm could cause us.

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    (Image: Reproduction/Xueliang Bai)

    It is also difficult to predict bad space weather, but the new satellite is a step closer to ahead in attempts to decipher the mechanisms of solar eruptions and winds. It is a CubeSat, that is, a small “box” equipped with some scientific instruments to study the ionosphere, which is in the range of 25 km to 1.000 km above the surface. This layer of the atmosphere is filled with charged particles, both free electrons and ions.

    During a solar storm (or geomagnetic storm), a shock wave caused by winds, eruptions, and mass ejections The sun’s coronal causes a temporary disturbance in the magnetosphere — the magnetic “bubble” that protects our planet from these solar emissions. When the solar wind reaches us, it compresses the magnetosphere and the magnetic field of the solar wind itself interacts with the magnetosphere.

    These interactions cause an increase in electrical current in the ionosphere and the magnetic field Earth is then opened like an onion, allowing energetic particles from the solar wind to flow along the field lines to reach the atmosphere above the poles. In more severe geomagnetic storms, the ionosphere becomes highly irregular and disrupts the radio signals that pass through it, in addition to creating surges of electrical current in power grids.

    During the process, X-rays and ultraviolet radiation from solar winds heat the atmosphere above the ozone layer at latitudes above the equator. These changes influence the amount of drag in low Earth orbit, and this hinders the prediction of trajectories of satellites and space debris. That is, this entire chain of events could result in a disaster in Earth orbit.

    Infographic of the effects caused by charged particles from solar winds on our planet (Image: Reproduction/NASA)

    Many problems can be avoided if scientists can predict a geomagnetic storm a few days in advance, but it is currently impossible to know what will happen more than three hours in advance. Therefore, research carried out with satellites such as CUAVA-1 in the terrestrial ionosphere, especially in equatorial and medium latitudes, can help to clarify the mechanisms that precede solar storms.

    On the other hand, the CUAVA-1 is just one piece in a much larger and more ambitious puzzle. Designed and built in Australia, it is a collaboration between several Australian universities, companies and government laboratories, and its main objective is to demonstrate technologies such as electrical cabling for data transfer, which is already a weight and volume savings.

    It is also equipped with a telescopic camera with a 1 cm aperture, which will try to prove the technology that will scan binary starlight for traces of planets. If successful, CubeSat will be an impressive leap in the “hunt” of exoplanets. Scientists currently rely on much larger telescopes for this type of research.

    Source: Cosmos, The Conversation

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