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UM Prof Says Solar Storms Can Foul Up GPS, Other Electronics

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ANN ARBOR — Solar storms — huge ejections of charged matter from the sun — have been battering the Earth this week.

They’ve produced beautiful auroral displays around Earth’s North and South poles, some extending pretty far south — not that we’ve been able to see them, unfortunately, because of this week’s cloud cover.

But the storms can also mean big trouble for satellites, astronauts, aircraft, GPS systems and even electronics, according to a University of Michigan professor.

University of Michigan professor Tamas Gombosi runs UM’s Center for Space Environment Modeling, which developed the model NASA uses to determine how solar storms affect Earth. It’s not all pretty Northern Lights.

According to Gombosi, the solar storms can cause electrical currents that fry orbiting spacecraft. They also pose a radiation hazard to astronauts, which means no spacewalks outside the protection of the International Space Station.

If they’re strong enough, the storms can also interfere with aircraft communication around the poles. And perhaps most worrisome for most consumers, they can interfere with the satellite communications required of GPS devices.

The federal National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration runs a Web site, www.swpc.noaa.gov, which offers the latest updates on space weather. Check it for information on which nights you might be able to see auroras — provided the clouds ever clear — as well as for times when you might want to treat the information on that GPS device with a little healthy skepticism.

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