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Solar flairs disrupt GPS signals

A NOAA satellite image of the Dec. 5, 2006 solar flare that caused intense radio bursts affecting GPS systems the following day. NOAA is the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (U.S. Department of Commerce). The National Weather Service is part of NOAA.

The advance of global positioning system (GPS) and geographic information system (GIS) technology has made it economical for landscape architects to use these systems in everyday site analysis and mapping. However, a recent solar event has precipitated warnings on becoming overly reliant on this technology without an awareness and understanding of the effects of space weather disruptions.

At the first Space Weather Enterprise Forum in Washington, D.C. on April 4, 2007, scientists from academia, government and the private sector warned that solar radio bursts can have a serious impact on GPS and other communication technologies using radio waves.

Scientists at Cornell University measured a December 6, 2006 solar flare that created an unprecedented intense solar radio burst causing large numbers of GPS receivers from tracking satellite signals. Using specially designed receivers, the Cornell scientists were able to make the first quantitative measurements of the effect of solar radio bursts on GPS receivers. From a previous smaller solar event, the scientists had predicted a larger solar radio bursts would disturb GPS receiver operation for some users.

“In December, we found the effect on GPS receivers was more profound and widespread than we expected,” said Paul Kintner, PhD, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell University.

Dale Gary, professor of the physics department at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), said the solar radio burst occurred during the "solar minimum," yet "produced as much as 10 times more radio noise than the previous record.” The NJIT solar radiotelescope measured the peak burst as producing 20,000 times more radio emission than the entire rest of the sun. "This was enough to swamp GPS receivers over the entire sunlit side of Earth,” Gary said.

NOAA and NASA want to better understand these solar phenomena, as does the aviation industry. The solar event was detected on the civil air navigation system, the Wide Area Augmentation System.

Anthea Coster of the MIT Haystack Observatory said there are three key points to remember about solar radio bursts. 1) We cannot become overly reliant on GPS technology without an awareness and understanding of the effects of space weather disruptions. 2) The effect of solar radio bursts, as happened in Dec., is global and instantaneous. 3) The size and timing of this burst were completely unexpected and the largest ever detected.

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June 15, 2019, 10:32 pm PDT

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