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The list of major satellites incapacitated by adverse space weather is long and costly. Recent examples include an AT&T Telstar 401 satellite that experienced a massive power failure in 1997 only days after a solar storm arrived at Earth. Last May, PanAmSat's Galaxy IV satellite, insured for $165 million, mysteriously lost attitude control and halted service for 45 million pagers in North America. Several new Motorola Iridium satellites suffered attitude control failures about the same time. In 1998, satellite insurance companies paid $1.8 billion in claims, of which half was for satellite failures in orbit.
Many new commercial satellites, however, may be more susceptible to solar storm damage than their less sophisticated predecessors only a decade older because they lack adequate shielding and radiation-hardened circuitry.
In the same way, solar storms produce changing magnetic fields that can induce current flow in power lines and other conductors. Human flesh is a partial electrical conductor. Otherwise, nerves and muscles wouldn't work. But the threat to people comes from what high-energy radiation and particles can do to DNA. High-energy particles such as protons and neutrons can collide with the atoms that make up the DNA molecule, breaking chemical bonds and potentially causing errors to appear in genetic information. Because people are constantly surrounded by radiation from the ground, air and food, some of this damage cannot be avoided.
Outside the bulk of Earth's atmosphere, however, the risk rises dramatically. Astronaut Shannon Lucid reported that, on the Russian Mir space station, the typical radiation dosage was the equivalent of about eight daily chest X-rays. During a solar storm at the end of 1990, Mir cosmonauts received a full year's dosage in a few days.
Major solar flares can deliver from 100 to several thousand rems in a few hours or days for an astronaut inside a spacesuit. That would lead to radiation sickness, and in extreme cases, death. Space station construction workers caught off-guard during even minor flares would be grounded for several years after such an encounter.
... for those of you who continuously preach that solar storms can't harm us on Earth, the truth is indeed much more horrifying than fiction...
Solar flares produce high energy particles and radiation that are dangerous to living organisms. However, at the surface of the Earth we are well protected from the effects of solar flares and other solar activity by the Earth's magnetic field and atmosphere. The most dangerous emissions from flares are energetic charged particles (primarily high-energy protons) and electromagnetic radiation (primarily x-rays).