News at the University of New Brunswick

UNB to help train next generation of European scientists and engineers about solar threats to satellite positioning and navigation systems

Author: Communications

Posted on Jan 5, 2012

Category: UNB Fredericton

The University of New Brunswick is an official partner in a major European program to train the next generation of scientists and engineers to counter solar threats to satellite positioning and navigation systems.

One of the major threats to the world's ever-increasing dependence on GPS and other global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) comes from the sun. Solar-related phenomena and their effect on the Earth’s ionosphere, such as ionospheric scintillation, or fluctuation, can be very disruptive and have serious consequences.

As the Earth approaches the next solar maximum in 2013, when ionospheric effects will be at their greatest, a network of internationally renowned experts, led by the Institute of Engineering Surveying and Space Geodesy (IESSG) at the University of Nottingham, are joining forces to help protect society from the effects of solar-related phenomena on GNSS signals. These experts will train a new generation of young researchers, as well as develop new research programs in the field of ionospheric perturbations and their mitigation.

This network, called TRANSMIT — Training Research and Applications Network to Support the Mitigation of Ionospheric Threats — is the first project of its kind in Europe. It is made up of a consortium of leading universities, research centres, and industry across Europe, as well as in Brazil and Canada.

A number of TRANSMIT fellows, the students selected to participate in the training program, will visit UNB to learn about the space weather data analysis tools and techniques developed by researchers in the Department of Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering and the Department of Physics on the UNB Fredericton campus.

Richard Langley, a professor in the Department of Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering and a member of the Geodetic Research Lab at UNB, says the university has been doing work around ionospheric disturbances and their effects on GPS and GNSS for more than 20 years.

“We get more episodes of heightened solar activity and associated ionospheric disturbances closer to the peak of the approximately 11-year sunspot cycle, which is what we're ramping up to in a couple of years,” says Dr. Langley.

The damaging effects of ionospheric interference resulted in serious service interruption and degradation during the so-called ‘Halloween storm’ event that took place in October/November 2003, just past the peak of the previous cycle, when one of the most intense solar flares ever was recorded. As a result of this storm, companies delayed high-precision land surveying, postponed airborne and marine surveys, cancelled drilling operations, and resorted to backup systems; and commercial aircraft were unable to use GNSS-based systems for precision approaches.

“The effect on GPS depends on the type and size of the disturbance,” Dr. Langley says. “There are also things like solar radio noise storms that can drown out GPS signals and there's not much that can be done about that, except perhaps developing more sensitive GPS receivers that can work with weaker signals.”

Systems can also be developed to use both the American GPS system and the Russian GLONASS system, to improve accuracy and provide redundancy. 

“At worst, solar outbursts can black out satellite signals altogether,” says Dr. Langley. “They can also create positioning errors and rapid signal fading.”

These intermittent problems can impact all GNSS users including mission-critical and high-precision applications for air, rail, and marine transport, and even autonomous machinery in areas such as agriculture.

"Luckily though, they tend to be short-lived at our latitudes, overall perhaps half an hour and it's gone,” he says. “But, during that period of time if it's severe, if aviation is depending on the use of GNSS for airport approaches, then they will have to use an alternative system. That's happened in the past.”

The €4m TRANSMIT initiative is being funded by the European Commission (EC), through a Marie Curie Initial Training Network (ITN). ITNs are part of the FP7 People Programme and aim to improve the career perspectives of researchers who are in the first five years of their research career in both public and private sectors.

Marcio Aquino, co-ordinator and senior researcher at IESSG, says that, “Europe lacks robust counter-measures to deal with these ionospheric threats. TRANSMIT will succeed in its aims because of the strong expertise and resources from its exceptional set of partners, encompassing both academic excellence and top-end users -- including the aerospace and satellite communications sectors, GNSS system designers, service providers, major user operators and receiver manufacturers. The EC investment in projects like this confirms the importance Europe is giving to this new and exciting research area.”

Dr. Langley notes that the development of new GNSS systems in Europe and China will make the overall satellite navigation and positioning systems around the world more robust, but those systems won't be fully implemented until after 2015.

“In the future, we'll have a multi-constellation navigation system and that should also be beneficial in reducing the impact of these kinds of storms,” he says.

Media contact:

Natalie Montgomery
UNB Communications & Marketing