Solar Flares and GPS: Why We Should Care About Space Weather

Ever hear of the Carrington Event? In September of 1859, Richard Christopher Carrington and Richard Hodgson, amateur astronomers in England, witnessed a solar flare – which Carrington described as a “white light flare.” Their findings were published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Nearly 24 hours after their observation, though, the impact of this observed flare was felt all over the globe. This particular solar flare – specifically, a coronal mass ejection (CME) – led to the most extreme solar storm in recorded history. Aurora light displays were viewed from the poles to low latitude areas (including the Caribbean in the Northern Hemisphere), and disturbingly, the energy – in the form of a geomagnetically induced current, caused technology and communication systems to break down. Telegraph operators reported sparks and fires, with some operators receiving electric shocks. In one recorded case, operators found that they could operate the machine using the current only from the aurora after disconnecting the battery. This is when it became clear – to Carrington and others – that the sun’s magnetic activity could have a direct impact on technology on Earth.

According to NASA and NOAA, who track Space Weather and the sun’s activity, we are currently in Solar Cycle 25 – with a peak of solar activity expected in 2025. The sun has a cycle every eleven years, and goes from a minimum of activity to lots and lots of activity, with sun spots often serving as a source of explosions, with energy and light bursting into space. Sometimes this happens and it isn’t in the direction of our planet; other times, it is directly aimed at us. According to NASA, “The biggest flares are known as “X-class flares” based on a classification system that divides solar flares according to their strength. The smallest ones are A-class (near background levels), followed by B, C, M and X. Similar to the Richter scale for earthquakes, each letter represents a 10-fold increase in energy output. So an X is ten times an M and 100 times a C. Within each letter class there is a finer scale from 1 to 9.”

As we approach the peak of the solar cycle – which isn’t for another two years – we’re already seeing lots of increased solar activity. Already in January of 2023, we’ve had a few X-class flares – and if any of them were to be in the direction of Earth, there could be bigger implications for technology.

The global positioning system, more commonly referred to as GPS, is more than just how we navigate somewhere using our phones. Made up of 24 satellites orbiting the earth, GPS controls position, navigation, and timing (PNT). The timing component is perhaps the least well-known, and the ability to acquire and maintain accurate and precise time from a standard (Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC), anywhere in the world means that GPS influences everything from financial transactions to the power grid. Since the Carrington event, we’ve moved well past telegraph machines, and are now dependent on GPS satellites for so much of what goes on in our everyday lives. If a major solar flare were to destroy GPS satellites (or significantly degrade them), it could impact everything from our utilities to our ability to use a credit card. On earth, the energy itself also can wreak havoc. Radio blackouts from solar flares are fairly common, and wireless communications and sensitive electronics (even a pacemaker) can be disrupted. Solar storms can also be costly. In February of 2022, Space X launched 49 satellites as a part of its Starlink network – and 40 of them were destroyed by a solar flare. A 2003 X-class flare caused lots of interference, and even took out a dozen transformers in South Africa, despite its lower latitude.

So, what do we do? We know that these natural phenomena exist, and we can develop resilient systems to ensure that PNT services can continue. A terrestrial-based system, like NextNav’s TerraPoiNT, would be less vulnerable to the destruction that can happen to satellites – and provide a resilient layer to GPS. As we continue to move towards the peak of the next solar cycle, and our dependency on technology continues to increase, providing complementary systems to GPS becomes more important than ever.