United States: Solar Flares Threaten Military Satellites

By Dialogo
October 01, 2012



Solar flares in March 2012 are believed to have temporarily knocked American
military satellites offline. Such flares can also disrupt power grids, interfere
with high-frequency airline communications, disrupt Global Positioning System (GPS)
signals, interrupt civilian communications and cover the Earth’s upper atmosphere
with hazardous radiation. Solar flares are sudden bursts of energy particles that
break through the surface of the sun and can damage sensitive satellite instruments.
“We’re very concerned about solar activity,” said General William Shelton, head of
the Air Force’s Space Command. 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.” Military satellite designers construct mission-critical satellites to
withstand short bursts of solar radiation. The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space
Administration can detect solar flares and give the Air Force about 20 minutes
warning to shut down sensitive instruments. The satellites can then reset and come
back online after the flare. But if the solar storm is lengthy, the damage may be
too severe for the software to reboot. Space capability is integral to everything
the military does, said Gen. Shelton, “from GPS targeting and communications to
incoming missile warnings for our troops overseas.”
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