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Solar Flares Could Affect GPS Systems

August 9, 2011 – Major solar flares that occurred late last week may have caused disruptions with GPS satellites and other communications over the weekend, according to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.  After three major solar flares erupted from sunspot 1261, the sun propelled a large burst of electromagnetic energy in Earth’s direction large enough to affect GPS equipment, according to Joseph Kunches, a space weather scientist at the center.

Two of the three solar flares already passed Earth last Thursday and over the weekend, with the second one being stronger than the first, Kunches said. The third one “could exacerbate the disturbance in the Earth’s magnetic field caused by the second [storm] or do nothing at all,” he added.

For a VFR pilot flying in clear weather, a GPS outage wouldn’t pose a serious situation, but such a service interruption could be dangerous for pilots using GPS for approaches in low ceilings.

Tom Bogdan, director of the center, indicates that more solar flares could be in store over the next few years. “We’re coming up to the next solar maximum, so we expect to see more of these storms coming from the sun over the next three to five years,” he said.

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