Forthcoming space weather may affect GPS devices including satellite navigation and NTP GPS time servers.
Whilst many of us have had to cope with some extreme weather last winter, further storms are on their way – this time from space.
Solar flares are a regular occurrence on the surface of the sun. Whilst scientists are not completely sure what causes them we know two things about solar flares: – they are cyclical – and are related to sunspot activity.
For that last eleven years the sun’s sunspot activity – small dark depressions that appear on the surface of the sun – has been very minimal. But this eleven year cycle has come to an end and there has been a rise in sun spots at the end of last year meaning 2010 will be a bumper year for both sunspots and solar flares.
But there is no need to worry about becoming toasted by solar flares as these bursts of hot gases that flare from the sun never get far enough to reach the Earth, however, they can effect us in different ways.
Solar flares are bursts of energy and as such emit radiation and high energy particles. On earth, we are protected by these blasts of energy and radiation by the earth’s magnetic field and ionosphere, however, satellite communications are not and this can lead to trouble.
Whilst the effect of solar flare radiation is very weak, it can slow down and reflect radio waves as they travel through the ionosphere towards Earth. This interference can cause GPS satellites in particular extreme problems as they are reliant on accuracy to provide navigational information.
While the effects of solar flares are mild, it is possible GPS devices will encounter brief periods of no signal and also the problem of inaccurate signals meaning positing information may become unreliable.
This will not just affect navigation either as the GPS system is used by hundreds and thousands of computer networks as a source of reliable time.
Whilst most dedicated GPS time servers should be able to cope with periods of instability without losing precision, for worried network administrators not wanting to go into work to find their systems have crashed because of a lack of synchronisation may want to consider using a radio referenced Network time server that uses broadcast transmission such as MSF or WVBB.
Dual NTP time servers (Network Time Protocol) are also available that can receive both radio and GPS, ensuring a source of time is always constantly available.