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Mar 7, 2006

Stronger Solar Storms Predicted; May Disrupt GPS & Other Satellite Technology

The next solar storm cycle should be significantly stronger than the current one, which may mean problems for power grids and GPS systems and other satellite-enabled technology, scientists announced today. In a report in the National Geographic News, scientists say that the next 11-year cycle of solar storms could start as early as this year or as late as 2008 and should peak around 2012.

Mausumi Dikpati, a solar scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research predicted that the next solar cycle will be 30 to 50 percent stronger than the last cycle. The last solar storm cycle peaked in 2001. Scientists say a new technique, called helioseismology allows them to make better predictions about the severity of the next cycle. The technique allows researchers to "see" inside the sun by tracing sound waves reverberating inside the sun.

Predicting space weather is more that casual research. Solar storms can disrupt satellite communications, cause power outages, and expose astronauts to high amounts of radiation. Richard Behnke, director of upper atmosphere research with the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia was quoted by the news as saying, "This prediction of an active solar cycle suggests we are potentially looking at more communication and navigation disruptions, more satellite failures, possible disruption of electric grids and blackouts, more dangerous conditions for astronauts - —all these things."

David Hathaway, a solar astronomer with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, agrees that the next solar cycle will be stronger than the last one. However, he disagrees on when it will begin. He says that models used by him and his colleagues suggest that the next cycle will start by the end of this year or early next year.