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Understanding Sunspots

Sunspots are dark spots on the surface of the sun. They’re cooler than other parts of the sun, and are trending area for events such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections.

Solar winds caused by increased solar activity can disrupt or completely destroy GPS and telecommunication satellites. There are alternatives, such as terrestrial communications that are getting faster every day.

While there are alternatives, losing space and near-space satellites isn’t convenient for anyone. Along with a lack of global communications when cables are severed or congested, scientific exploration is also reduced.

Predicting these events is difficult as well. About every 11 years, the general positions of sunspots can change. The solar cycle can be roughly predicted, but understanding specific outages in the future still takes time.

Electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is another risk that isn’t quite as dangerous as classic science fiction has taught the public, but can be a problem. Mechanical and electronic devices on Earth can be damaged or interrupted by EMP from sunspot-adjacent events.

The risks drive innovation. Not everything is susceptible to EMP, but EMP-safe isn’t easy to achieve and not always the best option. Even if the world is decades beyond old communications options, a loss of high speed, modern tech is still noticeable.

It’s not just for research, industry, and government. People get used to a certain standard of living, and if some communications are lost during a solar event, congestion will slow down what is available.

There is no easy way to taper communications use. The very fact that a limiting event happens will coax many people to pull out their phones and try to talk or access data just because they’re reminded that the option exists.

When Sunspots Aren’t A Problem

If you work in telecommunications, sunspots are both a real threat and a big joke. Radio technicians in the military and civilian satellite engineers regularly joke that sunspots are the cause for lost communications when in reality they didn’t adjust antennas.

For many radio frequency (RF) jobs, adjusting signals and providing coverage is one of the more boring, daily checklist types of jobs. Whether its cell site coverage for personal phones to get a signal or military radio technicians covering fleets, lost signal can sometimes come from laziness.

That said, sunspots are still a risk. Telecommunication professionals should have a calendar with projected sunspot dates to not only account for sunspot problems, but to know if their colleagues are playing silly tricks.

Sunspots aren’t a single, all-communications blackout event. The intensity of the phenomenon can vary, and it tapers off along the edges of the affected area.

For more details about the sun’s effect on communications, contact a telecommunications and general technology expert.