WASHINGTON: A solar eruption in December disrupted the Global Positioning System, a satellite-based navigational system used widely by the military, scientists and civilians, researchers reported on Wednesday.
The solar flare created radio bursts that traveled to the Earth, covering a broad frequency range, the researchers said, affecting GPS and other navigational systems.
Solar flares have been known to knock out satellites and even electricity grids, but the researchers told the Space Weather Enterprise Forum this was an unexpectedly serious new effect.
“In December, we found the effect on GPS receivers were more profound and widespread than we expected,” said Paul Kintner, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell University in New York.
“Now we are concerned more severe consequences will occur during the next solar maximum,” Kintner said in a statement.
Dale Gary of the New Jersey Institute of Technology said the burst created 10 times more radio noise than the previous record.
“Measurements with NJIT’s solar radiotelescope confirmed, at its peak, the burst produced 20,000 times more radio emission than the entire rest of the Sun. This was enough to swamp GPS receivers over the entire sunlit side of Earth,” Gary said in a statement.
Forecasters from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration observed two powerful solar flares on 5 December and 6 December 2006, emanating from a large cluster of sunspots.
A giant radio burst followed, causing large numbers of receivers to stop tracking the GPS signal.
“NASA wants to better understand this solar phenomenon so we can limit the adverse impacts on real-time systems,” said Tony Mannucci of the US space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Anthea Coster of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said the findings showed solar radio bursts can have global and instantaneous effects. “The size and timing of this burst were completely unexpected and the largest ever detected. We do not know how often we can expect solar radio bursts of this size or even larger,” she said.