Survey & Construction Newsletter, Early October 2008

September 30, 2008  - By

Solar Activity: Is There Aspirin for This GNSS Headache?

Like the hurricane/cyclone/typhoon seasons that occur every year around the globe, one fact of life about GNSS is space weather and the solar cycle. For professionals who use GNSS on a regular basis, it’s easy to forget about it since it’s not an annual event. In fact, those of you who have been using GNSS for only the past five years haven’t experienced it at all. Why? It’s an 11 year cycle, and it’s starting to heat up.

How does Solar Activity affect GNSS?

There are many, many papers on this subject that can offer you a lot of depth on this subject; just google “solar cycle GPS.” In my Eric Gakstatterish sort of way, I’ll write a brief description of how it affects GNSS.

The effect on GPS signals as they pass through the ionosphere is the largest single source of error that we see in GNSS today. Essentially, free electrons contained in the ionosphere affect the propagation of the signal as it passes through. Since the signals are traveling at the speed of light and GNSS is based on nanosecond timing, it doesn’t take much interference to introduce error.

For a graphic and more detailed information on the ionosphere, click here.

Modeling the Total Electron Content (TEC) of the ionosphere is something you may have heard of when reading about GNSS. TEC is directly affected by solar activity, and thus the solar cycle.

The solar cycle is an 11-year cycle of solar activity. Following is a nice graphic from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that’s on their Solar Cycle 24 web page. Solar Cycle 24 is the name of the solar cycle we are entering into.

From the graphic above, you can see the height of the next solar cycle will occur in the 2011-2012 timeframe. That’s when the TEC will be the most dynamic and the most difficult to model. You might also note that there are two prediction curves (along with their uncertainties); this is because even the experts can’t agree on just how big the next cycle will be.


Which GNSS users will it affect the most?

GPS L1 (single frequency) users will be affected the most. GPS uses a rough model, often referred to as Klobuchar (a scientist’s name), in an attempt to the model the ionosphere and minimize the effect for single frequency users. When the model closely resembles the actual TEC, then the TEC has minimal effect on single frequency accuracy and you are a happy user. When the actual TEC is much different than the Klobuchar estimate, that’s when the problem occurs. It’s sort of like that moment when you figure out you estimated 200 man-hours on a project that will take 500 man-hours … oops.

During the low point of the solar cycle is when the TEC is easiest to predict. Looking at the chart above, we are currently at the low point and really have been in a nice place since about 2004. Over the next two or three years, it’s going to change dramatically as the character of the cycle is such that it rises sharply in the beginning.

Autonomous GPS (using no correction source) accuracy has been very good these past couple of years (2-3 meters under ideal conditions). Because it’s been so good, some of you are relying on it for mapping. The increase in solar activity will affect you the most.

You will see some really funky data.

For those of you professional single-frequency GPS receivers who have built up confidence in your sub-meter mapping receivers, you need to be particularly aware. It would not be out of the ordinary for your DGPS-corrected position to have an error of more than 10 meters. That includes WAAS, DGPS beacon, commercial DGPS services, and post-processed solutions. In theory, if the accuracy of DGPS corrections (SBAS, DGPS) deteriorates sufficiently, you should be forewarned. However, how your particular piece of equipment handles that warning is up to each manufacturer.

Practically speaking, those errors aren’t going to occur on a daily basis. That would only occur during extreme solar storms. In fact, that order of magnitude will probably be quite rare, but certainly additional error in the 0.5-meter or 1-meter range will be more common than what you see now. The fantastic performance we are seeing today from autonomous GPS as well as SBAS isn’t just because of improved technology; it’s also due to the fact that we are in low point in the solar cycle.

Users of dual-frequency GPS receivers and multiple-frequency GNSS receivers will be affected less, but still affected. Ambiguity resolution will take longer (or not be achievable at all) during periods of heightened solar activity. However, these systems will fare better than their single-frequency brethren as multiple frequencies and shorter baseline distances typical of multiple-frequency users make it much easier to model the TEC.

Interestingly enough, this solar cycle ,with its effects diminishing after about 2016, should be the last one where we will have such concern. Think about it: it will be 2023 or so before Solar Cycle 25 starts to crank up. At that time, L2C, L5 and GPSIII will be in full bloom, not to mention Galileo and GLONASS, so the ability of our GNSS equipment to model and mitigate the effects of TEC will be much more advanced than it is today.

What can you do about it in the meantime?

First of all, educate yourself and understand your equipment’s exposure to solar activity. Here are some great links.

GPS World article from May 2003

NOAA Solar Cycle 24 Prediction issued April 2007

NASA feature article on the beginning of Solar Cycle 24

My esteemed GPS World colleague Richard Langley from the University of New Brunswick has also tackled this subject; he can provide you with the Richard Langleyish, scientific perspective.

Next, towards the end of 2009, make it a point to start checking up on solar activity. A great place for Europeans to do this is at the Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium’s website. The U.S. National Weather Service also operates the Space Weather Prediction Center. Also, note that for those users along the equator, your area is more susceptible to dynamic TEC changes.

There is no doubt you will hear more and more about the impending solar cycle as it ramps up: more research, more data collection, and more analysis. Some space weather experts say this cycle will be worse than the last, some say it won’t. However, there’s one thing they all agree on: we won’t know until it’s here.

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