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Cell Phone and GPS Service Disruptions Likely with Increased Sunspot Activity

May 26, 2008 11:31 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
As the sun moves into solar maximum from solar minimum, increased sunspot activity is expected, which will mean an increase in the disruption of satellite-dependent services such as GPS and cell phones.

30-Second Summary

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Dr. Eric Christian of NASA-Goddard U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., describes sunspots as "dark, cool areas of the sun’s surface where charged particles are emitted.” Sunspots do not directly impact the earth, but the solar storms they create, comprising solar flares and coronal mass ejection (C.M.E.), can interfere with and sometimes shut down satellites.

Solar storms have disrupted communications technology since the mid 1800s, when the telegraph was in use. Disruptions knocked out power grids, causing a blackout in Quebec in 1989. In 1997, solar storms incapacitated and led to the decommissioning of a $200 million communications satellite.

Even air travel has been disrupted by solar storms. In 2003 passenger aircraft on polar routes, which go over the Earth's poles to reduce both fuel costs and travel time, were redirected due to communications blackouts. It can cost an airline up to $100,000 to reroute a polar flight.

In March 2006, scientists predicted that the next solar cycle could be up to 50 percent stronger than the last one, making for some of the most intense solar phenomena since the late 1950s. Scientists formulated this prediction using a new computer model that allows them to forecast solar cycles with 98 percent accuracy.

Headlines: Increased sunspot activity in a digital age

Background: Sunspots, solar cycles

Impact: Disruption of satellites, cell phones, GPS (global positioning systems)

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