Rise in solar activity all but certain to mess with GPS

100210 at 10:18 am 16 comments

by Casey Johnston ArsTechnica

Our satellite navigation systems are about to take a pummeling from the Sun. The Sun is on schedule to experience an increase in solar activity that will interfere in a number of ways with the communication between satellites and navigation receivers on the ground, resulting in some potentially annoying outages and errors.

After a period of low solar activity, the Sun’s radiation is scheduled to rise again in the coming months. The heightened activity includes an increase in the occurrence of solar flares, which contain radiation in most wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum as well as high-energy particles. While the effects of the flares are not incredibly strong, it doesn’t take much to mess with the satellite navigation systems we have in place.

Satellite navigation, such as the US GPS system and Russia’s Glonass network, depends on the weak transmission of radio signals between satellites and receivers on Earth’s surface. While the connection is tenuous, use has been on the rise since the last high solar activity period around ten years ago, and is now used in everything from emergency vehicles to military operations.

The satellite signals must travel through Earth’s ionosphere, where the ionized particles interfere with the signal and already cause significant variations in results. The solar radiation will create more ionized particles in the ionosphere, causing errors of distance, a hundred feet or so, that could persist for hours or days. The direct interference of the radiation with the satellite signals themselves may cause ten minutes or so of blindness in receivers a few times a year. The blips are more likely to be annoying more than anything else, but still something to look out for.

Further reading

Sat-nav devices face big errors as solar activity rises

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