Solar Flares Likely Knocked Military Satellites Offline

Solar storms earlier this month may have caused military satellites to reboot

Jason Koebler
U.S. News & World Report
March 23, 2012

Despite being made to withstand radiation emitted from solar flares, a storm caused by the sun earlier this month may have temporarily knocked American military satellites offline, according to General William Shelton, head of the Air Force’s Space Command.

The energy particles associated with two solar storms March 9 and 10 may have caused what are called “single event upsets” on military satellites. “The timing is such that we say this was likely due to [solar radiation],” Shelton told reporters at a Defense Writers Group breakfast Thursday. Although it’s impossible to tell exactly what caused the events–essentially a temporary reboot of satellite instrumentation software–solar storms are known to wreak havoc on satellites.

“We’re very concerned about solar activity,” he said. Military satellites are “hardened [to withstand radiation], but maybe in some cases, not every part is as hard as we would like it to be.”

That’s because building a satellite to withstand solar storms is costly, which is why NASA says commercial satellites are often most vulnerable. Yihua Zheng, head of NASA’s Space Weather Services at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., says each satellite is built to withstand a different level of radiation, and that there’s a “cost-benefit analysis” to radiation hardening during a satellite’s development. Most mission-critical military satellites are built to sustain short bursts of solar radiation. Satellites “can reset and come back online.” But if the solar storm is lengthy, the damage could be severe enough that the satellite’s software won’t be able to reboot.

“Most of the satellites are built for this,” she says. “They should be OK.”

In recent years, the military has become more reliant on satellites operated by the Air Force’s Space Command, Shelton said. “Space capability is integral to everything [the military does],” he said, “from GPS targeting and communications to incoming missile warnings for our troops overseas.”

Shelton said the outages following this month’s solar storms didn’t affect any missions. “There were dire predictions preceding [these flares],” he said. “We didn’t see it to that degree.”

Zheng says NASA alerts the Air Force whenever a solar flare is incoming, and they have about 20 minutes of advance notice to de-activate sensitive instruments onboard satellites.

“They can turn sensitive instruments off as a preventative measure,” she says. “They can go into a ‘safe mode.’ Once the storm dies down, they can turn it back on.” Shelton says that NASA’s close relationship with the Air Force space command gives them good “advance notice of when a solar storm is headed our way.”

NASA says the recent wave of solar storms is only likely to intensify through the end of 2012, but Shelton believes the military’s satellites will be able to withstand any future storms.

“I don’t believe that anything–short of something truly catastrophic, that would be catastrophic to those of us on Earth as well, I don’t believe there’s a scenario where we’d wholesale lose spacecraft,” Shelton said.

Solar Flares Likely Knocked Military Satellites Offline: Solar storms earlier this month may have caused military satellites to reboot – chicagotribune.com.

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America’s secret space plane has been in orbit for over a year – and no one knows what it’s doing

The X-37B has been circling the Earth at 17,000mph and was due to land in California in December

By TED THORNHILL
UPDATED: 13:36 EST, 8 March 2012

The U.S Air Force’s highly secret unmanned space plane was supposed to stay in space for nine months, but it’s now been there for a year and three days – and no one knows what it’s doing.

The experimental craft has been circling Earth at 17,000 miles per hour and was due to land in California in December.

However the mission of the X-37B orbital test vehicle was extended – for unknown reasons.

The plane resembles a mini space shuttle and is the second to fly in space.

The first one landed last December at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California after more than seven months in orbit.

The 29-foot, solar-powered craft had an original mission of 270 days.

The Air Force said the second mission was to further test the technology but the ultimate purpose has largely remained a mystery.

The vehicle’s systems program director, Lieutenant-colonel Tom McIntyre, told the Los Angeles Times in December: ‘We initially planned for a nine-month mission. Keeping the X-37 in orbit will provide us with additional experimentation opportunities and allow us to extract the maximum value out of the mission.’

However, many sceptics think that the vehicle’s mission is defence or spy-related.

There are rumours circulating that the craft has been kept in space to spy on the new Chinese space station, Tiangong.

However, analysts have pointed out that surveillance would be tricky, since the spacecraft would rush past each other at thousands of metres per second.

And Brian Weeden, from the Secure World Foundation, pointed out to the BBC: ‘If the U.S. really wanted to observe Tiangong, it has enough assets to do that without using X-37B.’

Last May, amateur astronomers were able to detect the orbital pattern of the first X-37B which included flyovers of North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, heightening the suspicion that the vehicle was being used for surveillance.

Other industry analysts have speculated that the Air Force is just making use of the X-37B’s amazing fuel efficiency and keeping it in space for as long as possible to show off its credentials and protect it from budget cuts.

After all, under budget cuts for 2013 to 2017 proposed by the Obama administration, the office that developed the X-37 will be shut down.

According to X-37B manufacturer Boeing, the space plane operates in low-earth orbit, between 110 and 500 miles above earth. By comparison, the International Space Station orbits at about 220 miles.

The current flight launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in March.

Mystery: U.S X-37B space plane has been in orbit for over a year | Mail Online.