Research Analyze Disruption of Satellite Navigation Systems due to the Northern Lights

Researchers at the University of Bath have gained new insights into the mechanisms of the Northern Lights, providing an opportunity to develop better satellite technology that can nullify outages caused by the natural phenomenon. 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, northern Norway, where they analyzed the lights simultaneously using a radar and a co-located GNSS receiver. The analysis showed that turbulence does not take place within the Northern Lights. This new knowledge will enable new technological solutions to overcome the outages experienced due to this phenomenon.

The Northern Lights occur at the 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. Till now, previous research has shown that the natural lights of the Northern Lights - also known as or Aurora Borealis - interfere with Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) signals which are heavily relied upon in the transport and civil aviation industries. The presence of plasma turbulence within the lights were traditionally deemed responsible for causing GNSS inaccuracies. However, this latest research has found that the turbulence does not exist due to these reasons; suggesting new, unknown mechanisms that are actually responsible for outages of GNSS signals.

The team used GNSS signals to identify how the lights interfered with GPS signals. Radar analysis provided a visual snap shot of the make-up of the phenomenon. GNSS is used to pinpoint the geographic location of a user's receiver anywhere in the world. Numerous systems are currently in use across the world including the widely known United States' Global Positioning System (GPS), the Russian Federation's Global Orbiting Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) and Europe's Galileo. Each of the GNSS systems employs a constellation of satellites orbiting the Earth at an altitude of 20,000 km satellites, working in conjunction with a network of ground stations. Originally developed by the US government for military navigation, satellite navigation systems are now widely used by anyone with a GNSS device, such as an in-car SatNav, mobile phone or handheld navigation unit, which can receive the radio signals that satellites broadcast.

The researchers believe this heightened understanding of the Northern Lights will enable the creation of a new type of GNSS technology which will be robust against the disturbances caused by this phenomenon.

With the planned introduction of 5G networks and autonomous vehicles which rely heavily on GNSS, the need for accurate and reliable satellite navigation systems has never been more critical. 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. This research will lead to the development of new GNSS technologies that are immune to the effects of the northern lights and other natural phenomenon.

Click here to view the full research report.