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
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.
Arrange the students into four groups.
Give each group a data table for an assigned year.
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
Permit time for the students to analyze the graphs and to look for a correlation.
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.
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.
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?
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
Storms:Hidden Menace article written by Dr. Odenwald to learn more about
how solar storms affect our technology.
Return to the Table of Contents
This activity was developed by the NASA, IMAGE/POETRY
Teacher and Student Consortium.
For more information, and a list of other resources, visit