HomeSpace FlightSatellites get lost in solar storms and take weeks to find

Satellites get lost in solar storms and take weeks to find

In October 2003 satellite controllers lost track of hundreds of spacecraft for days after a major solar storm hit Earth. Experts worry that with the increase in the number of satellites and debris orbiting the planet in the nearly twenty years since, the next big solar storm could throw the near-Earth space into chaos for weeks. 

The U.S. Space Surveillance Network (SSN) currently tracks about 20,000 objects larger than 4 inches (10 centimeters) in low Earth orbit, the region of space at altitudes below 620 miles (1,000 kilometers). Some of these objects are operational satellites, but most are defunct spacecraft, spent rocket stages and debris fragments created in collisions. SSN experts use radar measurements to maintain a catalog that enables them to keep tabs on where these objects are in space and project their trajectories into the future. When two objects, for example a piece of space debris and a satellite, look set to get dangerously close to each other, the satellite operator receives a warning. In some cases, they conduct avoidance maneuvers to prevent a crash.

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