Solar Storm Coming ... In Five Years

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The future of satellite-based navigation may face its first big test just as we're getting used to using it. NASA scientists predict a major burst of solar activity in 2010 or 2011, enough to disrupt GPS and wireless data and communications. "The next sunspot cycle will be 30% to 50% stronger than the previous one," said Mausumi Dikpati, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Dikpati said conditions are ripe for a solar storm second only to one experienced in 1958 when Aurora Borealis (aka the Northern Lights), which is caused by sun spots, was visible in Mexico. The bands of energy also disrupt radio waves, something that could have a profound effect on the way we do business in five years. David Hathaway of the National Space Science & Technology Center (NSSTC) said the sun is currently quiet, with few flares and sunspots. But a pattern of energy flow he likens to conveyor belts is recharging the complex magnetic fields that create the solar outbursts and, based on previous observations of this 11-year cycle, the next period of activity is expected to be action-packed. And while the so-called Solar Max is a few years off, we'll start seeing evidence of sunspot activity much sooner. "I expect to see the first sunspots of the next cycle appear in late 2006 or 2007 -- and Solar Max to be underway by 2010 or 2011," Hathaway said.