by Dr. Tony Phillips
On April 5, 2010, something eerie happened to the Galaxy 15 telecommunications satellite: It turned into a zombie.
The day began as usual, with industry-owned Galaxy 15 relaying TV signals to millions of viewers in North America, when suddenly the geosynchronous satellite stopped taking commands from Earth. It was brain dead! Like any good zombie, however, its body continued to function. Within days, Galaxy 15 began to meander among other satellites in geosynchronous orbit, transmitting its own signal on top of the others’. Satellite operators scrambled to deal with the interference, all the while wondering what happened?
In horror movies, zombies are usually produced by viruses.
“In this case, the culprit was probably the sun,” says Bill Denig of the National Geophysical Data Center in Boulder, Colorado. He and colleague Janet Green of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center recently led a study of the Galaxy 15 anomaly, and here are their conclusions:
On April 3rd, a relatively minor solar flare launched a cloud of plasma toward Earth. Galaxy 15 had experienced many such events before, but this time there was a difference.
“Galaxy 15 was just emerging from the shadow of Earth when the cloud arrived and triggered a geomagnetic storm,” explains Denig. Suddenly exposed to sunlight and the ongoing storm, “the spacecraft began to heat up and charge [up].”
Electrons swirling around Galaxy 15 stuck to and penetrated the spacecraft’s surface. As more and more charged particles accumulated, voltages began to rise, and—zap!—an electrostatic discharge occurred. A zombie was born.
“At least, this is what we suspect happened based on data collected by GOES satellites in the vicinity,” he says. “We’ll be able to diagnose events like this much better, however, after GOES-R is launched by NASA in 2015.”
GOES-R is NOAA’s next-generation Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite. One of the instruments it will carry, a low-energy electron counter, is crucial to “zombie fighting.” Low energy-electrons are the ones most likely to stick to a spacecraft’s surface and cause brain-frying discharges. By monitoring these particles in Earth orbit, GOES-R will provide better post-mortems for future zombie outbreaks. This could help satellite designers figure out how to build spacecraft less susceptible to discharges. Also, GOES-R will be able to issue alerts when dangerous electrons appear. Satellite operators could then take protective action—for example, putting their birds in “safe mode”—to keep the zombie population at bay.
Meanwhile, Galaxy 15 is a zombie no more. In late December 2010, after 9 months of terrorizing nearby spacecraft, the comsat was re-booted, and began responding to commands from Earth again.
All’s well that ends well? True zombie fighters know better than to relax. Says Denig, “we’re looking forward to GOES-R.”
You and the kids in your life can learn about space weather at http://scijinks.gov/space-weather-and-us.
This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The Galaxy 15 communication satellite was “brainless” for several months in 2010 after being exposed to a geomagnetic storm. The new GOES-R satellite will warn of such dangers.