Business Technology

Thursday 18 January 2018

Irish scientists shed light on solar storms

A satellite image of a solar storm, which can cause spectacular displays of colour
A satellite image of a solar storm, which can cause spectacular displays of colour

Shane Hickey

NEW revelations from Irish scientists about how the sun works could lead to major technological developments for satellite communications.

Researchers from Trinity College have discovered how solar storms -- eruptions of hot gas from the surface of the sun -- travel to the earth, in what they describe as a highly significant study.

The storms, only visible through the cameras of a spacecraft, can cause interruptions to telecommunications systems and, in some cases, render satellites inoperable, Dr Peter Gallagher, a senior lecturer in the School of Physics, said.

Dr Gallagher and PhD student Jason Byrne discovered that the solar storms do not travel from the sun along straight lines and can now reconstruct the path of these storms through space -- information which will be of benefit to forecasters of space weather.

"Spectacular as these displays may be, solar storms can cause interruptions in telecommunication and global positioning systems (GPS), and in some cases render satellites inoperable," Dr Gallagher said.

"Closer to home, it has recently been shown that electric power-distribution networks, including EirGrid, are affected by fluctuations in solar activity."

The storms travel at millions of kilometres per hour once they are launched from the sun, containing millions of tonnes of hot solar gas. It is hoped the new research, which was funded by Science Foundation Ireland, will help forecast the arrival time and impact of the storms on the planet.

Solar storms, which contribute to the red and green colour in the Northern Lights, can get curved and bend through space, according to the new research.

The scientists used NASA satellites to reconstruct the path of a storm as it travelled to earth from the surface of the sun.

The results will be able to help organisations, such as militaries, which use high-precision GPS satellites sometimes interrupted by the storms.

"If you were relying on space-based communications, you would just rely on ground-based communications instead," Dr Gallagher said.

"If you were relying on drilling off the coast of Ireland and you were using GPS, you want to be accurate putting your drill bit down to high precision.

"But if you know that the solar activity is going to be causing bad space weather or interruptions in GPS, you won't drill for that day."

Irish Independent

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