Solar storms pose threat to aircraft nav and com systems

 - September 28, 2010, 11:50 AM

Progression in the development of both aircraft and their systems have made it so that in many cases pilots manage the systems more than they handle the airplane. However, old-fashioned piloting skills remain as essential as ever since such systems can be affected by interference from outside sources such as the sun–a vulnerability that might rear its head quite soon. Every 11 years the sun emits solar flares that can disrupt long-range communications and cause aircraft navaids to fail, and particularly those that depend on satellite navigation system. Such flares create difficulties in planning and operation, and the next expected flare–in 2013–will be particularly difficult because it will coincide with an enhanced magnetic cycle, according to Dr. Richard Fisher, director of NASA’s Heliophysics division.

In Europe the Technical and Air Safety Committee of the London-based Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators has issued a warning that space scientists say that solar storms are impending and will cause problems for satellite-dependent systems such as GPS and ADS-B.

Scientists believe the solar storms will temporarily shut down navaids. Particularly disturbing is the fact that it is difficult to forecast the location and timing of such failures.

At a recent conference in Washington representatives from the government agencies studying solar storms gathered to raise awareness about the upcoming solar storm and facilitate the sharing of information among the user community, including flight crews and developers of satellite communications, GPS systems and domestic electrical-generation and -distribution systems.

Given adequate warning of an impending storm, managers of the systems can reduce the risk of damage by putting satellites in a non-functioning mode and disconnecting transformers to avoid electrical surges.

The National Academy of Sciences first raised the alarm in 2008 by producing a report titled “Severe Space Weather Events–Social and Economic Impacts,” outlining how many high-technology electrical systems (such as power grids and satellite navigation) can be rendered unusable through intense solar activity. In cost terms a major solar storm could leave a financial bill greater than that for 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.