Space storm hits satellites, airlines; consumer GPS systems are safe

Solar flare causes significant radiation storm but experts say most communication systems are unaffected

Radiation from the largest solar flare in more than six years shouldn't adversely affect communications or technology for most people on earth, experts say.

Doug Biesecker, a physicist at the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., said that while the solar flare has caused problems for some GPS systems, airline communications systems and satellites over the past day or two, most people around the world won't notice any ill effects.

Solar flare
This image of the sun, captured by The Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft and dated Jan. 28, 2011, shows nearly simultaneous solar eruptions on opposite sides of the Sun. (Image: NASA/Reuters).

On the plus side, many people could see some dramatic aurora borealis displays.

"There was no effect on cell phones or the Internet," Biesecker said. "There was a solar flare that erupted Sunday evening ... and we've had a radiation storm in progress - a fairly significant radiation storm."

Biesecker noted that the radiation storm that emanated from the solar eruption is the 11th largest since 1975 and the largest since October of 2003. And a geomagnetic storm, a temporary disturbance in the Earth's magnetosphere also caused by the solar flare, began hitting on Tuesday.

Several airlines, including Delta and United, have diverted flights that normally travel over the North and South Poles, as well as some high-altitude routes.

Biesecker explained that the high radiation levels from the solar eruption do impact high-frequency communications, for instance on a network often used by the military, airlines and mariners. The communication network is most affected in polar regions.

"People working on the South Pole were out of touch for about two days, and on the North Pole, airlines that fly over there were affected," said Biesecker. "And on the poles, they can't use satellite communications because all the comm satellites sit over the equator and are out of view of the poles."

And he also noted that satellites have been affected the last few days.

"Every satellite we use to help predict weather was impacted. Every one," said Biesecker, who noted that the satellites are programmed to correct any issues in real time. "It wasn't to the point where it would kill a satellite. It was more a temporary problem. Literally, there were no disruptions in TV signals or point-of-sale transactions that I'm aware of."

He explained that to deal with a radiation storm this significant, satellite operators try to communicate with the satellites as little as possible so the machines, which are struggling in the storm, don't confuse a command that could cause the satellite to do something it's not supposed to.

The geomagnetic storm, which began Tuesday and is still going on today, has been causing tiny errors in GPS systems, Biesecker noted.

The errors are so small that most people wouldn't notice any effect from them. However, people and industries who rely on extremely exact calculations could be affected this week, he said.

"Would you notice it in your car? No," said Biesecker. "But if you're doing precision agriculture, where you need to fertilize and water exactly where you planted a seed, now the crops won't grow as well. Or if you're doing surveying where you need accuracy to a centimeter, you're impacted."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is

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