Solar activity nears peek, could disrupt GPS & satellites

Impact: GPS, satellites, power grid vulnerable

(WXYZ) - The natural world is defined by seasons.

Summer turns to fall. Hurricanes follow both an annual cycle and a decades-long cycle of increased storminess.

These natural phenomena are driven largely by the sun. But the sun, too, follows a pattern of increased activity.

The sun's activity increases and diminishes over 11 year cycles. According to Dr. Holly Gilbert of NASA we are approaching  this solar maximum.

Just last month the sun emitted 16 sizable solar flares and 19 quick moving coronal mass ejections that sent solar material and radiation into the solar system and toward earth.

Why should you care? Well, the sun and Earth have a deep and complex relationship. All life on Earth is sustained by our stars' light and heat. But large bursts of radiation and particles from solar flares and coronal mass ejections can damage satellites both in space and equipment here on Earth.

For instance, during  intense solar events, the sun's charged particles bombard the earth and can temporarily alter the upper atmosphere creating disruptions with signal transmission from, say, a GPS satellite to Earth causing measurement to be off.

Coronal mass ejections  can cause electric fluctuations at ground level that could blow out transformers in power grids. A CME's particles can also collide with crucial electronics onboard a satellite and disrupt its systems. It's possible cell phone service, satellite television and GPS are just examples of some of the modern conveniences that could be impacted.

This means communications may be disrupted and GPS navigation blocked. The more we rely on satellites the more we need to worry about and understand space weather.

Later this month NASA is schedule to launch the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (also called IRIS) that will observe a little understood region of the sun's lower atmosphere to help explain one of the enduring mysteries of our solar system -- why the sun's atmosphere is nearly 200 times hotter than the sun's visible surface.

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