Where finance and media intersect with reality

Solar storm hits 49 of Musk’s Starlink satellites

Credit: elhombredenegro, Creative Commons

A few days ago, I was speaking to someone with links to Washington, who noted that if and when tensions between the West and Russia/China really escalate, the first proper flash point could be in space and not on the ground.

They then went on to speculate that any fallout from something like an electromagnetic device detonation could easily be masked as solar storm activity so as to ease panic.

That was on Saturday. It’s now Wednesday and Elon Musk’s SpaceX has announced the company could lose up to 40 of 49 Starlink satelites it launched on February 3 due to an unexpected geomagnetic storm that hit last Friday. You can find the SpaceX announcement here. Here’s an extract:

Unfortunately, the satellites deployed on Thursday were significantly impacted by a geomagnetic storm on Friday. These storms cause the atmosphere to warm and atmospheric density at our low deployment altitudes to increase. In fact, onboard GPS suggests the escalation speed and severity of the storm caused atmospheric drag to increase up to 50 percent higher than during previous launches. The Starlink team commanded the satellites into a safe-mode where they would fly edge-on (like a sheet of paper) to minimize drag—to effectively “take cover from the storm”—and continued to work closely with the Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron and LeoLabs to provide updates on the satellites based on ground radars.

The first inkling a solar storm was coming was when NOAA issued a warning on February 3, the day the satelites launched.

Now, (hopefully) this is just a coincidence. But, irrespective of whether such an event might be EMP or solar storm triggered, the potentially disastrous consequences and our overall unpreparedness are very real.

If the system’s “extra high voltage transformers”, made by companies like ABB, are not shut down in time, they could be permanently frazzled. Without EHVTs in place the grid simply cannot function. The added exposure comes in the fact that it could take as long as two years to procure replacements.

I wrote about our general unpreparedness for such an event back in January, 2020. Dominic Cummings later flagged it as one of the UK’s most under-appreciated vulnerabilities when he testified to the Science and Technology, and Health and Social Care Committees, in May 2021.

If things were to get hostile, a targeted attack on satellites in space might be considered the next phase after a shot across the bows. A Goldeneye style detonation over a major cosmopolitan area, however, would be something else entirely.

 

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