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Solar Flares and GPS

November 8, 2006

Strong solar flares could render some GPS receivers temporarily useless.


A hidden weakness in GPS. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Scientists have discovered that powerful solar flares can cause some GPS receivers to fail—including the kind used by airplanes to navigate. Cornell engineer Paul Kintner says it’s lucky they found the problem now, when the sun is at its lowest point of activity during its 11-year cycle.

PAUL KINTNER (Cornell University):
Solar maximum will be about 2011, so one of the reasons that we’re publishing these results is that so people know that, while they’ve become used to GPS not being affected by space weather, in several years it will be affected by space weather and they should be aware of it.

Kintner explains that the radio waves that accompany strong solar flares happen to be in the same frequencies used by GPS, and can confuse certain receivers. He says the best solution right now is to monitor solar activity and use a backup navigation system when a flare happens. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.