Solar Storms and You!

Activity 18 : Satellite Glitches and Cosmic Rays


Electronic problems with orbiting satellites are more frequent when the environment has been bombarded with energetic particles called cosmic rays. These high energy, charged particles impact sensitive electronic circuits and cause 'glitches', which can alter the operation of a satellite in an  unpredictable manner. This activity shows the correlation between cosmic ray hits and the electronic errors in the NASA TDRS-1 communication satellite which is used for keeping in touch with the Space Shuttle crew while in space.


Students will construct a graph from a data table. Students will look for correlation's and patterns between the frequency of cosmic rays and glitches.


Table of cosmic ray flux and TDRS-1 glitches.
Graph paper


  1. Arrange the students into four groups.
  2. Give each group a data table for an assigned year.
  3. Students will create a double line graph with the months on the horizontal axis. Using two different colored pencils, plot the glitches and the cosmic ray hits.
  4. Permit time for the students to analyze the graphs and to look for a correlation.
  5. Have the groups combine the graphs into a single graph in the proper time order from 1987 to 1990 to enhance any long term trends.
  6. Provide each group with a transparency. Have each group prepare a presentation of their findings. They should note any correlation or discrepancy that they have found.
  7. Have a prepared transparency of the four tables and graphs, and the combined four year graph. Provide a concluding summary using the class results. Possible student conclusions include that when the cosmic ray hits are high, glitches are more common. There is a correlation between the two sets of data. Was there a year when there was a particularly  high number of both, and did that relate to a solar storm event, sunspot number increase, or coronal mass ejection?

Extra Credit

If you compare the cosmic ray hits against the sunspot cycle, you will note that when the solar cycle is near maximum, the number of cosmic ray hits is lowest. This is because cosmic rays come from interstellar space, not the Sun. When sunspot activity is the highest, the Sun's magnetic field is much stronger out near the Earth, and this helps to shield us from the cosmic rays. When solar activity is lowest, the Sun's magnetic field is weaker near the Earth and so the cosmic rays have an easier time reaching the Earth and affecting our satellites.


Students should have correlated the data for the electronic glitches with the cosmic ray hits to the satellite. From the real data in the tables, the students have plotted, analyzed, and have drawn a conclusion.

Related Web Resources

Visit the IMAGE/POETRY Solar Storms:Hidden Menace article written by Dr. Odenwald to learn more about how solar storms affect our technology.

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This activity was developed by the NASA, IMAGE/POETRY 
Teacher and Student Consortium. 
For more information, and a list of other resources, visit 
the IMAGE/POETRYweb site.