Turbulence not the culprit for Northern Lights’ effect on GNSS

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Researchers at the University of Bath, UK, have gained new insights into the mechanisms of the Northern Lights, providing an opportunity to develop better satellite technology that can negate outages caused by the natural phenomenon.

Previous research has shown that the natural lights of the Northern Lights — also known as Aurora Borealis — interfere with GNSS signals. Plasma turbulence within the Northern Lights has been deemed responsible for causing GNSS inaccuracies. However, the latest research found that turbulence doesn’t exist, suggesting new, unknown mechanisms are actually responsible for outages on GNSS signals.

This is the first time it has been shown that turbulence does not take place within the Northern Lights. The findings will enable new technological solutions to overcome these outages.

The research team from the University of Bath’s Department of Electronic & Electrical Engineering, in collaboration with the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association (EISCAT), observed the Northern Lights in Tromsø, Norway, where they observed and analyzed the Northern Lights simultaneously using radar and a co-located GNSS receiver.

GNSS signals were used to identify how the Northern Lights interfere with GPS signals. Radar analysis provided a visual snapshot of the make-up of the phenomenon.

The researchers believe this heightened understanding of the Northern Lights will inform the creation of new types of GNSS technology that are robust against the disturbances of the Northern Lights, and help influence GNSS regulations used in industries such as civil aviation, land management, drone technology, mobile communications, transport and autonomous vehicles.

“With increasing dependency upon GNSS with the planned introduction of 5G networks and autonomous vehicles which rely heavily on GNSS, the need for accurate and reliable satellite navigation systems everywhere in the world has never been more critical,” said university lead researcher and lecturer Biagio Forte.

“The potential impact of inaccurate GNSS signals could be severe. Whilst outages in mobile phones may not be life threatening, unreliability in satellite navigations systems in autonomous vehicles or drones delivering payloads could result in serious harm to both humans and the environment,” Forte said. “This new understanding of the mechanisms which affect GNSS outages will lead to new technology that will enable safe and reliable satellite navigation.”

The Northern Lights occur at North and South magnetic Poles, and are the result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun’s atmosphere.

The research was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics.

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