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Increased solar activity can lead to errors in personal GPS navigation

The Sun’s activity is getting higher (as we approach 2012, wink!) and there’s more than just nasty sunburn you need to worry about – the GPS system that so many have come to rely on may be in trouble. We can expect worse accuracy and even complete positioning “blackouts”.

The signals from the GPS satellites that GPS receivers rely on to get a location fix are quite weak and are easily influenced by the Sun’s radiation. The problem is two-fold – solar flares could overpower the weak signals from the satellites (in 1989 a solar flare caused a blackout in Quebec power grid) and the ionosphere gets charged differently on the day side than on the night side, which introduces unpredictable errors.

The error scope will differ across the world, but the UK, for instance, can expect accuracy to get worse by about 10 meters. That’s probably not a big deal for car navigation, but if you’re one of the professionals that rely on accurate positioning, get ready to deal with a few annoyances.

Solar flares can cause the receivers to stop working altogether for several minutes or more and this will probably happen several times a year.

So, the professionals might face some difficulties, but they have fancier equipment and they’ll manage somehow. These errors shouldn’t hurt the regular Joe much, but even without those errors, people still get lost in Oregon or almost drive off cliffs. That’s mostly the fault of the behind-the-wheel device, but bigger errors in positioning will only make matters worse.

This is just a friendly warning – don’t trust your SatNav system blindly, or you may as well fall the next victim of technology.

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