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Solar storms may cause cellphones to drop calls

January 24, 2012 |  2:06 pm
The effects of a massive solar flare on Sunday are expected to be felt on earth on Tuesday evening.

On Sunday, a massive explosion on the sun known as a solar flare sent an ejection of some of the sun's plasma hurtling toward earth at the ungodly speed of 1,000 kilometers...per second!

No need to worry about being hit by flying sun plasma though -- that will zoom right past Earth and race toward the edge of the solar system, according to Harlan Spence, principal investigator for the Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation (CRaTER) instrument onboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

It's the ionizing-radiation that was also produced during the flare that hit Earth on Tuesday that is more of a cause for concern.

The radiation won't physically hurt those of us who are earthbound -- the Earth's magnetic field and its atmosphere provides an effective shield against that. But astronauts who are working on the International Space Station could be at risk.

"These particles move so fast that they can penetrate the walls of spacecraft, damage electronics and even pass through a spacesuit into a person's body," said Spence. "And when it moves through you, it can do grave damage to your cells and your DNA. That's why astronauts will try to go to a well shielded environment when one of these events occur."

Furthermore, our beloved GPS systems may be affected. The GPS satellites themselves, which are located high above the Earth's atmosphere, are most likely not at risk, but the earth's electromagnetic field will get all stirred up by radiation coming off the sun, and the signals we receive have to pass through that stirred-up area.

"As conditions change, GPS systems may be degraded," said Spence.

Cellphones will generally not be affected, said Douglas Biesecker, a physicist with NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center.

"It can be impacted if it's sunrise or sunset and the cell tower is in the same direction of the sun," he said. "A cellphone signal is very very weak, so anything that comes in at that frequency could overwhelm it. You would just drop the call, but you wouldn't realize why."

And if you are planning a flight that might pass near one of the Earth's poles -- from New York to Japan for instance -- your plane might be rerouted to keep the flash flood of charged plasma particles from interfering with navigation systems. Delta has already rerouted some of its flights. Others flew at lower altitudes to reduce the risk of radiation exposure.

ALSO:

What if solar storms knocked out the Internet?

Solar storm sends charged particles toward Earth

Viola performance interrupted by Nokia ringtone [video]

-- Deborah Netburn

Image: A solar flare captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit: NASA / Reuters

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