New insights into Northern Lights satellite sabotage

Researchers from Bath University have disproved a widely held theory about how the Northern Lights impact the satellite signals used for global positioning.

(Credit: University of Bath)

It has long been thought that plasma turbulence within the polar Auroras has been responsible for disrupting Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) such as the United States’ GPS, Europe’s Galileo, and Russia’s GLONASS. However, members of Bath’s Department of Electronic & Electrical Engineering, working alongside the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association (EISCAT), were able to prove that this turbulence does not exist.

Observing the natural phenomenon in Tromsø, northern Norway, the team analysed the Northern Lights simultaneously using radar and a co-located GPS receiver. According to the researchers, the radar provided a ‘snapshot’ of the Aurora Borealis and proved for the first time that plasma turbulence was not behind the satellite disruption. This suggests that some form of new, unknown mechanism is at play within the polar lights affecting GNSS signals, and the team believes the discovery will ultimately lead to improvements in the robustness of GNSS technology.

“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 Bath’s Dr Biagio Forte, lead researcher on the project.

“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 new understanding of the mechanisms which affect GNSS outages will lead to new technology that will enable safe and reliable satellite navigation.”