Rod Heelis: ‘Space storms disrupt GPS, satellite signals’

Rod Heelis: As societal technology increases, more and more of that technology becomes dependent on communications that use space-based transmitters and receivers.

Rod Heelis is a space scientist. He’s director of the Hanson Center for Space Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. Heelis told EarthSky that the clarity of satellite radio and GPS signals depends on the current state of the ionosphere – the uppermost part of Earth’s atmosphere.

Rod Heelis: If the ionosphere is smooth, then the signals will pass through relatively unimpeded and there’ll be a clear signal on the ground. If the ionosphere is disturbed, signals can be distorted or completely removed from passing through the ionosphere so you don’t get any communication or navigation at all.

Heelis used special instruments aboard a space weather satellite to measure the size, density and movement of ionospheric particles. Heelis hopes to predict these turbulent spots – called ‘space storms ‘ – in the ionosphere.

Rod Heelis: One way to think about these storms in space is to think about them as tornadoes or hurricanes, and that is, there’s not much you can do about them. If you can forecast when and where they will be, then you can arrange to not be in that location and so you can avoid the impacts of them.

Storms in space are tied to activity on the sun. In May 2009, the Solar Cycle 24 Prediction Panel reached a consensus decision on the prediction of the next solar cycle (Cycle 24). They agreed that solar minimum occurred in December, 2008. The consensus opinion – not a unanimous decision – was that the next solar maximum should occur around May of the year 2013. Read more about the solar cycle here.

On the picture with this article, the red areas of the image show a large amount of electrons in Earth’s upper atmosphere during an April 2001 space storm. The increase in electrons means more interference for communication systems, GPS, and so on.

Our thanks to Rod Heelis.
Rod Heelis is director of the Hanson Center for Space Sciences at the University of Texas, Dallas. His research interests range from planet-star interaction to the differences between planets with magnetic fields, and more. He measures weather in space by means of sophisticated instruments that fly on satellite ‘space labs,’ and creates computer models that aim to predict space weather phenomena and to determine to what extent they will affect space-based assets.

May 8, 2009

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