Deadly Bubbles of Plasma

Image on Business Insider’s website

Business Insider posted an interesting article last Friday about plasma bubbles and how they affect communications between satellites and devices on Earth.  The post suggests that ionospheric plasma bubbles seem to occur primarily around the Earth’s equator.  The article also gives a short description of what a plasma bubble is–the rising of a low-density plasma through the Earth’s upper atmosphere into the higher-density plasma residing there.

The bubble created impacts radio signals coming from and going to satellites if the signals and satellite are in the wrong place at the wrong time.  This means GPS signals are affected, as are general communications, which is a problem if you’re a military person whose life might be impacted by a critical communications update.  The impact of a plasma bubble could be as extreme as people just not able to receive or send any satellite communication.  Such a problem is exactly the scenario painted by Business Insider about a team of US troops sent into battle in Afghanistan.

Back in 2002, a Quick Reaction Force (QRF–a small group of military troops created to be deployed quickly) didn’t receive communications, possibly because of an ionospheric plasma bubble, relayed through satellite, about just how bad a particular landing zone they were flying to was.  Because they didn’t get that communication while flying in the helicopter, the helicopter crashed while trying to land as it took on a lot of enemy fire.  That crash landing resulted in three deaths of folks on-board the helicopter.

Could that crash landing have been avoided?  Perhaps.  It depends on what kind of information the QRF received, and how much about plasma bubbles a briefing officer knows.  But this kind of guesswork does get into Monday morning quarterbacking a bit, and I am trying avoid that.  However, I will go into what I know I haven’t seen in some Air Force space weather briefings, which is anything about ionospheric plasma bubbles.  This is the first time I’ve really heard about them–which may or may not be a good data point for you.  It could be because plasma bubbles aren’t considered “true” space weather and so are never mentioned.  Or maybe some folks in the USAF don’t know or understand the impact of these plasma bubbles on their equipment, or even worse, their people.

It’s odd, though, because in the Business Insider article, it seems that scientists know that plasma bubbles form EVERY NIGHT from Fall until the beginning of Spring.  The doomed 2002 Afghanistan mission occurred right towards the end of the annual plasma bubble formations, but those ionospheric plasma bubbles were still forming during that time.  If the QRF had known, they would have probably figured out a different way to communicate, or just beefed up communications somehow.

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