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Solar Flares Could Affect GPS, Satellites, Power
Solar Flares Could Affect GPS, Satellites, Power

By Adam Dickter
February 17, 2011 2:32PM

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Electronics on Earth could be affected by solar flares that may be the biggest event since December 2006. Planes are being directed further south and some radio frequencies may be affected, but the overall impact is expected to be mild. In 1989, solar flares may have caused a power disruption, and a worse solar storm may arrive in 2013.

If your GPS system's performance is a little spotty on Friday, don't call tech support. Blame the sun. Three waves of charged particles that erupted from its corona Sunday, Monday and Tuesday will hit the Earth in the next few days in what scientists are calling the biggest solar event since December 2006.

It won't be as bad as a 2003 flare-up that is the biggest solar eruption ever recorded by instruments, but planes are being directed further south than usual to avoid the North Pole, where the impact will be most severe. Northern areas may also be treated to a light show Thursday and Friday nights.

Sunny, with a Chance of Coronal Mass

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration reported Thursday on its daily space weather site that solar activity Thursday would be moderate, but over the next three days there could be "an increase to unsettled to active conditions, with a chance for minor storm periods expected late on day one into day two (18 February) because of the arrival of the coronal mass eruption." The forecast for day three, Feb. 19, is "quiet to active."

The warning of G1 or G2, out of a range through G5, is mild, said Joseph B. Gurman, project scientist for NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory. However, it could impact some radio frequencies, he said.

"Flares have excess high energy radiation -- EUV, soft and hard X-ray, even gamma rays -- that can affect ionization and heating in the Earth outermost atmosphere, the thermosphere," Gurman told us. "That, in turn, affects the heights at which shortwave radio frequency signals are reflected, and sometimes that means disrupting RF communications, particularly near the geomagnetic poles."

Some disruptions were reported in China. Unlike the coronal mass that takes hours to travel the 95 million miles to Earth, electromagnetic radiation gets here in just eight minutes. It then takes the earth's atmosphere several hours to "relax" after the impact and return to normal.

Since satellite technology takes these routine events -- they average 175 per 11-year solar cycle -- into account, the impact on communication should be minimal.

"Typically you prepare to shift traffic to terrestrial resources and away from satellites," said Rob Enderle, principal technology analyst at the Enderle Group. "Generally it is the sun-facing satellites that are the most affected, but, in most cases, with a performance impact, the traffic can be shifted to better-shielded resources."

Danger To Power Cables

Gurman said the flares are the result of catastrophic changes in magnetic field in the sun's outer atmosphere.

"If they're ejected fast enough, CME's can drive shocks through the solar wind, and those shocks, threaded with twisted magnetic fields, provide efficient charged-particle acceleration --- enough to get particles going at speeds of half the speed of light or more," the scientist said.

In extreme cases, that energy can cause electric currents in our atmosphere and trapped energy that could interfere with or even damage satellites.

"The ring currents can also induce electric currents in the Earth and the oceans, particularly at high geomagnetic latitudes, that can damage copper cabling and interfere with electric power transmission if the generating facilities do not have adequate warning to allow them slowly to adjust the ground phase of their large transformers," Gurman said.

In 1989, solar flares are believed to have caused a nine-hour power disruption in Quebec.

The Los Angeles Times reported that NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer satellite can give researchers and industries a 30-minute warning before coronal mass ejections strike.

We may be in for a worse storm in 2013, when the sun's 11-year cycle of activity is due to crest.

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