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Solar storms happen all the time, oftentimes without us ever even realizing they are going on. However, just a few months ago, a massive solar storm caused some insidious damage.

Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, created 49 satellites that ended up being launched into space on February 4, 2022. Unfortunately, just days later, the same satellites were destroyed by our atmosphere, costing SpaceX more than $50 million.

The reason for their disintegration was because of a geomagnetic storm that was caused due to a solar storm that sent particles of radiation hurtling into Earth’s atmosphere.

While we don’t often notice them, solar storms occur almost daily. When they do, they cause eruptions which are known as coronal mass ejections. These ejections sometimes make their way into our atmosphere and when they do- the radioactive energy interacts with our magnetic field.

In some cases, the damage is simply a few glitches in the power grid. But in others, like this particular situation, the damage caused the satellites to fall out of orbit, hurtling towards the ground, before being burned up in the atmosphere.

Piyush Meht is a professor of Mechanics and Aerospace Engineering at West Virginia, University, and in a recent article on the Conversation, he wrote extensively about the dangers of space weather.

As an engineer, he says he works alongside other engineers who are trying to find ways to analyze risks like these and help build satellites in a way that protects them from similar situations.

According to him, the speed at which a coronal mass ejection travels makes the difference between a mild solar storm and a massive one.

“Normally, solar wind travels at roughly 900,000 mph. But strong solar events can release winds up to five times as fast.”

In 1859, the strongest geomagnetic storm on record took place, causing telegraph lines to shock operators, and even causing fires. “Research suggests that if a geomagnetic storm of this magnitude hit Earth today, it would cause roughly $2 trillion in damage.”

Because we have our magnetic field, we are protected from a massive extent of the damage that could be caused to our physical bodies. However, because the “redirection of energy to the poles is what results in fantastic aurora events, it also causes changes in the upper atmosphere that can harm space assets.”

Put simply, this is why the SpaceX Starlink satellites fell from the sky in February.

Meht says, “The ability to accurately forecast storms would make it possible to preemptively safeguard satellites and other assets to a certain extent by shutting down-sensitive electronics or reorienting the satellites to be better protected.”

Unfortunately, our predictions aren’t always on point. In this situation, the NOAA warned that a CME was likely to occur the day before or the day of the launch. The mission continued, and thus we saw them fall from the sky.

For now, scientists and engineers alike continue to work to try to resolve these types of problems and make predictions more accurate.