Scientists are predicting some intense solar storms this year, particularly in the summer, as the sun will reach its most active period of its 11 year cycle. To prepare for this event, which could possibly affect radio communications and GPS tracking and navigation, scientists are currently creating a chain of monitoring stations around the world to study the ‘solar maximum.’ But what, exactly, is that?
The solar maximum is the peak of solar activity, which goes through an 11 year cycle. It is predicted there will be more sunspots than ever before, and the increase in the number of sunspots has an effect on the ionosphere, which in turn could interfere with radio transmissions from satellites in space. Scientists aren’t sure the current satellite navigation technology can withstand a solar max, especially as it has never experienced one in the past, and the ionospheric changes could pose a big problem for those trying to use their GPS devices to get to where they need to go.
The Ionosphere and GPS
The layer of the atmosphere known as the ionosphere is made up of electrically charged particles which are heavily influenced by the activity of the sun, and was discovered by 20th century radio pioneers, the first to bounce long-wave radio signals off it. The Space Age arrived, and radio signals began traveling through the ionosphere in order to reach satellites in orbit. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find a person in the world who does not rely on these satellites at some point in their daily life.
When solar maximum occurs, a vast number of sunspots appear on the surface of the sun, and its irradiance output grows by roughly 0.1 percent. It is believed even this seemingly insignificant percentage of growth has a huge impact on the Earth’s climate and weather patterns. During this time the ionosphere becomes turbulent, being thickened by the warmer Sun, and again when it is cooled in the evening, producing plasma bubbles. These plasma bubbles, indicators of plasma instability which occur when the air cools, actually lead to GPS trouble. More specifically, the GPS device is unable to lock on to the satellites to determine location.
Working Towards a Solution
The European Space Agency plans to monitor the effects the solar maximum will have on the ionosphere, as well as the impact it will have on the for satellite communications and GPS location, by setting up a network of monitoring stations around the world. “The current Monitor network is still being developed but has already been detecting mild ionospheric storms,” said the scientist heading the project, Roberto Prieto-Cerdeira.
The monitoring stations measure variations in GPS signals more precisely than existing systems. “We are placing sensor stations around the globe, but the vicinity of the equator is a particular focus of interest,” said Dr. Prieto-Cerdeira. “It exhibits much more dynamic behavior than the mid-latitudes so we have established stations at Cape Verde off West Afrrica and Malindi, Kenya, on the other side of the continent. In addition, through a deal with French space agency CNES, we will have access to stations hosted by existing tracking sites at Libreville, Gabon and Ascension Island in the mid-Atlantic, the latter site being where the magnetic equator diverts from the geographic equator.”
Hopefully the data collected by this project will pinpoint a solution before the solar maximum, avoiding the chaos that could come along with non-functioning GPS devices and related equipment.