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Annual Report 2017

Probing effects of solar storms

Humans have been fascinated with space for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, but there’s still so much to learn. To this day, researchers continue making groundbreaking discoveries about how life on Earth is affected by the final frontier.

At UNB, researchers are partnered with NASA and other educational institutions to develop technologies and study how what happens in space can significantly change the way humans live and interact.

Breaking ground in space

A study co-authored by a UNB professor has uncovered just how much solar storms can disrupt radio communications and GPS navigation systems back on Earth.

Dr. Richard Langley, a professor of Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering at UNB’s Fredericton campus, worked with researchers from the Technical University of Denmark, the University of Illinois, and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory to study the effects of solar outbursts, or solar storms on the sun’s surface, on Earth’s atmosphere.

The study, published in January 2017, showed large sections of the upper atmosphere over the Arctic region were left void of electrons after a solar storm. This discovery may help to further explain what causes blackouts in radio and satellite signals in the Arctic, which limits air and marine travel in that region.

From discovery to development

“Many of our communication and navigation technologies are affected by the atmosphere when moving signals around the Earth or between satellites and the Earth,” says Dr. Langley. “So studying solar storms and their effects on the Earth’s atmosphere is vital to maintaining and expanding our communications systems.”

It’s well known that solar storms affect electrons in the Earth’s atmosphere, but this is the first research which demonstrated a loss of electrons from a solar storm. The study focused on a solar storm that took place over Greenland in February 2014, and the results of the study were published on the front page of the renowned scientific journal Radio Science, run by the American Geophysical Union.

This research will support the development of communication and navigation systems that can take into account conditions during solar storms to ensure safe flights and marine travel in Arctic regions.