How the sun can kill us and what startups can do about it

Today's interconnected world relies heavily on space technologies for communication, navigation, and other services. However, these technologies face substantial risks from space weather. Alexey Shirobokov, co-founder of Mission Space, explains how startups are addressing these challenges and safeguarding against solar activity.

SpaceTech and its current solutions

SpaceTech encompasses a wide range of innovations aimed at exploring and utilising outer space. Over recent decades, this sector has grown exponentially, becoming a vital part of the global economy. Valued at $630 billion in 2023, it’s projected to reach $1.8 trillion by 2035, according to McKinsey.

Beyond deep space exploration, spacetech plays a crucial role in solving practical issues here on Earth.

One major focus is improving communications to provide global coverage with high-quality, reliable data transmission. Despite advancements in wireless technology, underwater cables still carry 95% of the world’s internet traffic, highlighting the need for robust satellite communications.

Earth remote sensing is another pivotal area, using satellites to gather data on our planet’s surface for mapping, environmental monitoring, agricultural planning, and climate research.

Space weather forecasting is also becoming a critical priority in spacetech. It involves developing satellites and tools to monitor solar activity, creating predictive models, and implementing measures to mitigate the impact of solar storms.

Space weather and its impacts

Space weather refers to conditions influenced by the Sun and solar wind, including solar flares, storms, and coronal mass ejections. These phenomena can disrupt satellite operations, communications infrastructure, navigation, aviation, and financial systems. They also pose health risks to astronauts and aviation personnel due to heightened radiation levels.

For instance, the powerful solar storm of 1859, known as the Carrington Event, caused significant disruptions to global telegraph systems, leading to a two-day communication blackout and several weeks of restoration. Today, a similar event could have even more devastating consequences due to our heavy reliance on modern technology. Recognising this threat, the UK government has classified space weather as a top-priority natural disaster on the National Risk Register.

This issue looms larger as we approach the peak of Solar Cycle 25 in July 2025. During solar maximum, solar activity intensifies, increasing the risk of damage to space and communication systems.

Safeguarding against solar threats

Continuous, high-quality monitoring of solar activity is essential to mitigate these risks. Current data primarily comes from large scientific satellites, many of which are beyond their expected lifespans. If these fail, we could lose our main source of information on solar radiation. To ensure uninterrupted monitoring, smaller second-tier satellites are being considered. These are cheaper and easier to launch, providing a resilient backup system.

Effective solar storm forecasting relies on advanced technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning. These tools process vast amounts of satellite data to predict solar activity accurately and swiftly. This enables stakeholders to prepare for potential threats proactively.

Central to space weather monitoring is the timely dissemination of warnings. After collecting the data, it is important to convey it to end users who rely on space weather data for stable, uninterrupted, and safe operations. Platforms must be designed to provide real-time, easily understandable information on solar activity to all interested parties.

High-quality monitoring and forecasting of space weather require global data collection and analysis. This necessitates worldwide cooperation among governments, startups, and the scientific community. More projects in this field lead to better protection of the planet from potential threats. However, startups often face significant challenges in promoting innovation within this niche. At Mission Space, we encountered several obstacles while developing these initiatives, which I will outline below.

Challenges for spacetech startups

One of the greatest challenges is testing technologies under space conditions, where equipment may behave differently than on Earth. Unlike terrestrial conditions, testing in space involves substantial financial and time investments.

Regulatory barriers also pose a challenge. The space industry is subject to stringent international and national requirements, including radio frequency coordination to avoid interference, deorbit conditions, and many other standards. For small teams, navigating these requirements is difficult, involving extensive paperwork and permits, which significantly increases project time and cost.

Furthermore, the development of space technologies involves a high degree of uncertainty. Even after extensive ground tests, it is impossible to predict how the technology will perform in space until the first real test in orbit.

Testing new hypotheses in space science is especially challenging and expensive due to the lack of available technology and data required for experiments, making it difficult for startups to obtain scientific approval and convince potential investors of their project's viability. Unlike conventional biology, where experiments can be conducted in a laboratory, the space industry often lacks this capability.

Overcoming challenges and driving innovation

To thrive in the spacetech sector, startups must address these challenges effectively. The strategies below can help overcome the main obstacles and accelerate innovation in the space sector.

  1. Fast-Track Programme for Rapid Hypothesis Testing: startups need the ability to quickly test and iterate on developments to accelerate the verification of technologies in space. This will reduce the time from idea to launch and allow for rapid adaptation and product improvement.
  2. New Funding Models: introducing a model where funds are provided as specific goals are achieved. Instead of standard support of several hundred thousand euros, startups could receive larger amounts with clear criteria for achieving development milestones, such as a successful launch or reaching operational readiness.
  3. Support for Commercial Space: to stimulate innovation and reduce barriers to entry, it is crucial to decrease reliance on public funding. Fostering partnerships between private and public sectors allows startups to enhance investment and streamline regulatory processes.
  4. Subsidised Launches for Universities and Startups. implementing such a programme would provide access to space technologies for a broader range of participants. Universities, in turn, could actively seek payloads and create centres around specific projects, making it easier for small teams to test and implement their developments.

By overcoming these challenges, SpaceTech startups can drive innovation and ensure our planet is better protected from the threats posed by space weather.