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Dropped Calls May Be Caused by the Sun

Nicholas McConnell

Jason Byrne

If your cell phone is dropping calls, the problem may be radio waves from the Sun. Our nearest star sometimes unleashes huge eruptions of hot gas, called solar storms, that carry billions of tons of matter in our direction. These storms can be accompanied by solar radio bursts, which can damage many of the technologies that we rely on in our everyday lives.

A recent study by scientists in Ireland and Hawai‘i, including IfA postdoctoral scientist Jason Byrne, shows that solar storms create huge shock waves that race through the solar atmosphere at millions of miles per hour. As they do, they can accelerate electrons to huge energies, which then produce radio waves.

Radio bursts from solar storms can adversely affect both satellite and terrestrial communications. In fact, mobile phone networks can experience more dropped calls during periods of increased solar activity. Despite decades of study, the link between solar storms and solar radio bursts had remained unclear until this study.

“The study of solar storms is often very challenging because of the limited ways to observe them from Earth. This is now being overcome with the use of such missions as NASA’s STEREO and Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft that provide high-resolution images from different locations in space, allowing 3-D imaging of solar eruptions,” says Byrne.

The new study combining multiple spacecraft data with solar radio burst detections from antennas in Ireland gives an insight into the fundamental physics of these solar storms. This allows scientists to investigate how solar storms move through space and predict whether or not they will hit Earth and cause severe space weather conditions in our upper atmosphere.

The results of the study, led by Prof. Peter Gallagher of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, not only give an insight into the fundamental physics of massive explosions on the Sun, but enable scientists to better understand how the Sun affects Earth and potentially impacts technology and our daily lives.