Friday, June 24, 2016

Telstar 401, A Ghost of Space Weather Past

Earlier the week we received our conjunction report that lists satellites that will pass close to SDO. Our inclined geosynchronous orbit means there aren't a lot of satellites near SDO, but every couple of months one will come within 20 km (12 mi) of our spacecraft. This week saw the return of Telstar 401 to our list (see the picture at left.) Telstar 401 is a large telecommunications satellite that failed January 11, 1997, and has since drifted around the geostationary belt of satellites. This is not a small satellite, the solar panels stretch about 60 ft across. It's good to know the other satellite is around, but it would be better if was moved to a graveyard orbit well outside of the geostationary belt.

It is possible that Telstar 401 failed because of the activity created by a coronal mass ejection that rose off the Sun on January 6, 1997. (The gray picture at left shows what the CME looked like at 1850 UTC on that date.) The CME is the white arc moving down from the occulting disk. It is called a halo CME because we see it as a ring around the Sun, which means it is heading straight towards Earth!

The impact of the CME was not very dramatic when it reached Earth a few days later. But the energies of the radiation belt protons and electrons were increased enough that they caused an electronic component to arc and fail. There were several attempts to revive Telstar 401, but it was eventually declared a loss.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, there are almost 500 satellites currently operating in geosynchronous orbits about the Earth. Most of them are in the geostationary belt that allows them to appear stationary in the sky. There are about 100 defunct satellites in graveyard orbits further away from the Sun. But it is the failed satellites and spent boosters that blunder along and show up on the SDO conjunction report every month or so.

Telstar 401, a true ghost of space weather!