Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Why weather in space affects your cell phone

Your car's navigation system and your cell phone stop working. Your flight to Hong Kong has to detour to Anchorage to refuel.

In the Gulf of Mexico, hundreds of oil drilling operations stop work. And highway construction is delayed - again - because the workers can't pour concrete.

Blame it all on the weather -- in space.

Scientists and industry officials say fluctuations in space weather due to solar flares and radiation storms can cause wide-ranging problems that affect Global Positioning System devices everywhere. While the everyday GPS user will likely experience only a minor inconvenience, industries that rely on precise positioning can lose hundreds of thousands of dollars a day, or more.

It's all a bit technical, but when the sun flares, it sends out a magnetic disturbance that reaches and distorts Earth's magnetic field, said Ernie Hildner of Boulder, who retired in 2005 after nearly 20 years as director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Environment Center. Other types of space weather include radiation and geomagnetic storms.

Hildner spoke at a seminar on space weather this week on Capitol Hill, where Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo, said he has fought to keep federal funding for the Space Environment Center. Its budget has shrunk over the past few years.

"We can't control it, but we can predict and understand it," Udall said of space weather. When an audience member, Len Pietrafesa, a professor of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at North Carolina State University, said the Space Environment Center needs more funding, Udall said he would consider it a homework assignment.

The center studies solar flares and warns the world when disturbances are expected to be high. Airlines and drilling industries, among others, take those warnings seriously, changing flight paths or delaying operations until storms are over.
Although space weather has affected human technology as far back as the first telegraph wires, the widespread use of new systems based on GPS satellites leaves communications and other links more vulnerable to the sun's eruptions than ever before.

Coincidentally, GPS has risen in popularity during the quietest years of the 11-year cycle of solar flares.
While 2007 is a low point in the cycle, the center predicts it will start to rise in 2008, peaking sometime from 2011 to 2013.

More industries than ever rely on GPS for precise positioning. Airlines have created more flight routes that cross the North Pole, cutting down on fuel costs and travel time. Oil drilling and mining companies use the system for such details as where they can anchor rigs. Highway construction companies and farms use GPS to perfect tiny details of daily operations.
So when space storms are brewing, they pay close attention to the center's readings. For airlines, days with high solar activity often require changing their polar routes, from Chicago and New York to cities in China and India, because of increased risk of lost communications with ground controller and radiation levels which are higher at high altitudes near the poles, said Gene Cameron, manager of worldwide support for United Airlines.

Richard Barker, systems engineering manager for Fugro Chance Inc., a marine survey company, said he recommends oil drilling operations stop when there's a risk of GPS going out. Though companies can lose up to $1 million a day when they don't work, they risk damaging oil pipelines and underwater infrastructure without the exact measurements GPS provides.
The cost of solar activity is enormous, the three men who spoke at the seminar said. Hildner said the National Academy of Sciences will study the costs of space weather, but so far no authoritative estimate exists. The direct cost to an industry like United Airlines, which would lose money by grounding or changing a flight, would snowball for customers who would miss connecting flights or business meetings.

Source : Scripps Howard News Service

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