Space Weather Threatens GPS

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As if we didn’t have enough weather to worry about here on Earth, scientists have confirmed what has long been anecdotally acknowledged -- that solar flares play havoc with GPS signals. And with the FAA moving steadily toward satellite-based technologies for the future of airspace management, the warnings from last week’s Space Weather Enterprise Forum take on increasing poignancy. “Society cannot become overly reliant on technology without an awareness and understanding of the effects of future space weather disruptions,'' Anthea Coster, Ph.D., MIT Haystack Observatory, told attendees at the conference, which was held in Washington, D.C. There is some good news, however. It appears WAAS signals, the cornerstone of most of the new navigation protocols, are somewhat less vulnerable to disruption. The scientists got a good look at the potential for disruption courtesy of massive, and unexpected, solar flares that occurred on Dec. 6, 2006. When a solar flare erupts, it throws out tremendous radio wave energy over a wide range of frequencies, and the December occurrence was enough to swamp GPS receivers over the entire sunlit side of Earth, noted Dale Gary, Ph.D., chair and professor of the physics department at New Jersey Institute of Technology. The December flare was an anomaly because sunspot activity is on an 11-year cycle and we’re at the lowest ebb of it now. Scientists predict the next peak in solar activity, in about six years, to be one of the strongest ever.