Services spanning everything from mobile phones to sophisticated weaponry increasingly depend on global positioning system, or GPS, technology. However damage by a massive burst of solar energy could knock out GPS satellites and send them veering into the paths of other craft or scramble their communications.
Led by a team from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), researchers from six European countries will use satellite data and ground-based measurements of the earth's magnetic field to forecast changes in radiation. That will allow them to alert satellite operators of a sudden increase in dangerous particles and give them time to move the craft out of harm's way, power them down or fold sensitive wings away.
"For the first time, we can now forecast radiation levels for a whole range of different orbits, from geo-stationary to medium earth orbit where there is a tremendous growth in the number of satellites," said BAS researcher Richard Horne, who led the project. "Nobody has done that before."
GPS satellites are particularly vulnerable because they orbit closer to the earth, passing through the Van Allen belt - a magnetic field that surrounds the planet and a troublesome source of radiation for satellites at all times.
"We know that the radiation levels there are much higher than in geostationary orbit, but they're still subject to big changes and we have a lot less information on those medium earth orbit locations," Horne told Reuters.
The tremendous growth in GPS system satellites from many countries, including Europe's Galileo, means that monitoring near-earth space has become increasingly important.
The risk of storms is growing. The 11-year activity cycle of the sun is set to begin a peak of stormy activity in 2012-13, making forecasting all the more important.
Though solar radiation can take a day and a half to travel from the sun to the earth, the new system will still only be able to give satellite operators a few hours notice of a storm thanks to data from a relatively distant NASA satellite, 1.3 million km (800,000 miles) out in space.
The price of the 2.54 million euro (3.39 million dollar) system is tiny compared to the loss of even just one satellite.
A repeat of a "superstorm," like that seen in 1859 would wreak an estimated $30 billion of damage to satellites alone, according to government-funded BAS.
In 2003, a geo-magnetic storm caused more than 47 satellites to go haywire and led to the loss of one satellite valued at $640 million.
Commercial operators are cagey about just how vulnerable their satellites are to solar storms, but a spokesman for Virginia-based satellite manufacturer Orbital Sciences Corporation said such storms were a well-known concern.
"Space weather of course is a contributing factor to long-term satellite performance," said spokesman Barron Beneski. "If there is a new tool that would probably be welcome."
An Orbital satellite attracted attention in 2010 when it failed and remained unresponsive for months, a malfunction the company said could have been caused by space weather.
($1 = 0.7501 euros)
(Reporting By Ethan Bilby; Editing by Ben Harding)