One of the bloodiest rescue missions in Afghanistan in 2002 was caused by a tactical error. But that error could have been prevented if it hadn't been for "space bubbles" that prevented a military helicopter from getting crucial intel from a remote command post.

Illustration of the battle by KEITH ROCCO

New data about what happened that day has made it clear that military tactics should include space weather in their calculus when they're making plans. High-energy particles and gas from beyond our atmosphere can interfere with communication.


In Nature, David Shultz explains:

On the morning of Monday, 4 March 2002, sometime just before the sun came up, an MH-47E Chinook helicopter carrying a group of U.S. Army Rangers flew low across a rugged Afghan landscape. Their destination, 33°20′34″N 69°12′49″E, was a snowcapped mountain called Takur Ghar. It was a rescue mission; hours earlier a team of Navy SEALS had been shot down by al-Qaida forces at the mountain's summit and needed extraction. But the Rangers had been given the wrong coordinates and were headed right into the same al-Qaida forces that shot the SEALS down. Back at the U.S. command post, radio operators tried desperately to warn the Chinook, but the message was never received, and the helicopter was downed by another al-Qaida rocket-propelled grenade. The Rangers' rescue mission turned into a 17-hour firefight—one of the deadliest engagements of the war for U.S. forces, costing seven lives.

The jagged peaks of Afghanistan have caused plenty of communications difficulties for U.S. forces, but researchers suspect that the doomed rescue mission may have fallen victim to a less visible source of interference: plasma bubbles. Their research, published online this month in Space Weather, suggests that turbulent pockets of ionized gas may have deflected the military satellite radio signals enough to cause temporary communications blackouts in the region.


Read the full story at Nature