Editorial | Inmarsat Telemetry Keys Space Weather Study

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A Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study on the effects of solar activity on geostationary orbiting satellites is noteworthy not so much for its results — they were inconclusive — but for satellite operator Inmarsat’s agreement to make 16 years’ worth of proprietary fleet-telemetry data available to the researchers.

The daily telemetry record documents the in-orbit operation and health of eight Inmarsat satellites spanning two generations for the 16-year period ending in 2012. It’s the kind of information that traditionally is jealously guarded by satellite operators, lest their competitors find a way to use it against them. Indeed, Inmarsat agreed to make the data available only after MIT consented to legal restrictions on how they would be used.

The cause certainly is worthy enough. Solar activity has long been an X factor of sorts in satellite anomaly forensics, periodically invoked by manufacturers to explain on-orbit glitches whose causes elude troubleshooters. While there is scientific basis for this — events such as solar flares are known to trigger potentially harmful electrostatic discharges in sensitive electronic components, for example — satellite operators often view such explanations with suspicion since they absolve manufacturers who in reality might be guilty of workmanship flaws.

The MIT researchers focused on the solid-state power amplifiers — 450 in all — aboard the eight Inmarsat satellites. During the period in question, 26 anomalies were recorded on these systems, with all but one requiring Inmarsat to switch to backup components. Five of the anomalies were eliminated from the study because insufficient space weather data were available for the time they occurred, making it impossible to correlate the two. For the other 19, the team was unable to find a smoking-gun connection to space weather events, according to the study, which was published in the latest issue of the journal Space Weather.

That does not necessarily mean there is no correlation, however. As the study’s authors noted, the satellite sample size was small, and not all of the spacecraft had been in orbit for the full duration of the 11-year solar cycle, which is marked by ebbs and flows of solar activity. 

In other words, more study using a broader sample size is needed. Whitney Q. Lohmeyer, the study’s co-author, said regional satellite operators Telenor and Arabsat — perhaps inspired by Inmarsat’s example — have already agreed to provide their proprietary telemetry data, while another, larger operator has agreed to do so in principle. 

Here’s hoping the larger operator follows through and that others follow suit. With a large enough data set, scientists might be able to finally establish a definitive link between solar events and on-orbit satellite anomalies — or not. Either way, the entire satellite telecom enterprise benefits. 

Inmarsat is to be commended for its trailblazing role in support of MIT’s effort. An increasing number of challenges facing the commercial satellite industry lend themselves to solutions that require closer cooperation among the players, even those in direct competition with one another.