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U.S. readies for space storms that could crash critical networks

Sharon Gaudin | Nov. 9, 2015
Solar eruptions could disrupt communications, navigation, power systems and spacecraft.

solar flare 620
This image of the sun, captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft and dated Jan. 28, 2011, shows nearly simultaneous solar eruptions on opposite sides of the sun.  Credit: NASA/Reuters

The U.S. is making preparations to protect communications and transportation systems from potentially dangerous space weather events.

Last month, the National Science and Technology Council released the National Space Weather Action Plan, a road map developed to prepare for a weather event in space that could disrupt electric power systems, satellites, telecommunications, navigation, aircraft, space launches and the International Space Station.

"These critical infrastructures make up a diverse, complex, interdependent system of systems in which a failure of one could cascade to another," the report states. "Given the importance of reliable electric power and space-based assets, it is essential that the United States has the ability to protect, mitigate, respond to, and recover from the potentially devastating effects of space weather."

The program is a combination of national, scientific and homeland security efforts.

"This is pretty important," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "It's one of those things that happens rarely, but not as rarely as most might think. The thing is, the way we communicate and route power today, we're much more vulnerable than in the past."

He added that high-voltage transformers are extremely vulnerable and long-distant transmissions would take a long time to repair.

The sun, a boiling, eruptive ball of fire, continually spews out massive clouds of hot, electrically charged gas. Some of those particles hurtle toward the Earth.

While the Earth's magnetic field protects the planet from most of the effects of these solar eruptions, powerful flares can affect the Earth's atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communication signals travel. The flares can also affect satellites and spacecraft.

If that happens, the solar flares could shut down mobile and high-frequency communications used by the military and airlines, cause GPS errors and even flood electrical power lines with extra current.

In the past several years, solar flares have caused radio blackouts and affected navigation systems. In 2012, one major solar flare caused Delta Airlines and United Airlines to divert flights that normally travel over the North and South Poles, as well as some high-altitude routes.

That same solar storm knocked out communications to the South Pole for about two days.

The U.S. government wants to ensure that space storms can't have an even greater effect on networks and systems.

The council wants to use ongoing research, while promoting increased domestic and international efforts in both the public and private sectors.


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