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Tech Prof: Solar Flare Can Impact Communication Systems

/ The Upper Cumberland's News Leader
Tech Prof: Solar Flare Can Impact Communication Systems

Could a solar flare reported early Thursday have caused an outage that affected some 70,000 AT&T cell phone customers?

Tennessee Tech Associate Physics Professor Mary Kidd said if a flare directed at Earth is strong enough, it can affect satellites and cause blackouts to communication systems and GPS. However, Kidd said it is unlikely that a flare would have affected only one cellular data provider.

“When these solar flares happen, there can be a release of charged particles,” Kidd said. “And depending on the direction of the flare, those can be directed toward Earth. Now, typically, Earth’s magnetic field protects us from those charged particles and they kind of get funneled into the polls.”

Other companies reported disruptions but not to the extent of AT&T. The problem Thursday impacted 911 communications in some areas. Kidd said we are nearing the height of the 11-year solar cycle. She said experts believe we will reach the maximum level of solar activity sometime this year, which could lead to several solar flares every week.

“I also heard about the outage and I wondered, knowing that the sun is more active, if a flare had caused that,” Kidd said. “But, I doubt that it would only affect AT&T. I don’t think they’re that selective.”

Kidd said the sun’s most active regions, “sun spots,” sometimes rearrange themselves to stabilize the magnetic field within. This causes a powerful release of energy that generates the solar flare. She said the phenomenon are still very mysterious and difficult to predict.

“Just the effect that it can have on communications and power grids and GPS and spacecraft and astronauts, because of those effects, it’d be great if we could predict these,” Kidd said.

She said as research develops, predictions are becoming more accurate. She said we see other impacts of solar flares in our atmosphere that may be more familiar. She said when solar flares are active, the northern and southern lights are much more intense; a largely positive side effect. She said on the flip side, the charged particles generated by the flares carry radiation, especially dangerous to astronauts in the International Space Station.


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