Space Weather and Solar ‘Lionels’

Interesting title I thought seeming as most of the readers are not likely to be Poms then you probably haven’t got a clue about the meaning of the last bit. Given my origins from East London I figured a bit of cockney rhyming slang wouldn’t hurt to confuse matters…..My understanding is that rhyming slang originated from (and I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong) prisoners wanting to talk without the prison wardens understanding their conversations, so they would use a phrase that rhymed with the intended word and used the first part of that phrase in conversation. e.g. Apple & pears ( means Stairs) and ‘pears’ would be dropped to becomes just ‘apples’ – So I’m going up the ‘apples’ etc…Others include: Dog and bone (phone)….Butchers Hook (look) etc

As usual I’ve gone straight off topic, anyway, If someone was caught wearing a pair of ‘flared’ trousers from back in the day then they were often referred to as a pair of ‘Lionels’ which is some form of homage to the most dreadful of stage show hosts ever in the UK called  ‘Lionel Blair’….And now you finally get to understand my topic title to mean Solar Flares…..OK, apologies, I never said it would be interesting or amusing…

The relevance to all this is that our training today was with IPS Radio and Space Services (http://www.ips.gov.au/) who are part of the Bureau of Meteorology. We will possibly be required to maintain some of their sensory equipment located at the stations so were being brought up to speed on what exactly it is they do, why and how we can help. The irony is that we, as comms people, are somewhat dependent on the services they provide and I now need to get a bit ‘techie’ on you to explain why….

Although it’s not the main part of our equipment we still use ‘High Frequency’ (HF) radio systems for medium to long distance communication, We used to use them a long time ago back in Zimbabwe and we managed to get conversations going back to the UK as they can talk over incredible distances when set up correctly. Simply put, the radio waves are ‘bounced’ off an atmospheric layer called the ‘ionosphere’ in order to travel to their intended recipient station, the quality of the radio signal is dependent on the density and altitude of the ionosphere in order to maintain a good reflection and get the ‘bounce’ landing in the correct spot to be received.

The Ionosphere has different levels e.g. D, E, F1 and F2 which have their own constantly changing altitudes, stabilities and characteristic performance levels at both day and night and different times of the year – What we need to understand as comms guys is what the ionosphere is doing at any time to allow us to determine the likelihood of successful transmission and select the best frequency for that time of day. This service is what the IPS provides to us, ironically we may be requested to look at and fix any of their CODI equipment located at our stations in Antarctica.

HF Ionosphere reflection

HF Ionosphere reflection

What the hell has this got to do with Solar ‘Lionels’? Well without going into too much detail the ionosphere is greatly affected by ‘Space weather’ such as winds and solar flares from the sun which change the density of the layer and affect it’s ability to reflect the waves back to earth. High solar flare activity can make it impossible to use HF at certain times, from just a couple of minutes to many hours of ‘black outs’ are possible – Now to add to the fun, in a couple of months time the Sun is going to be reversing it’s magnetic polarity which happens every 11 years or so, when this happens we will see a great deal more in terms of sun spots and flares, Solar wind and magnetic variation that will cause all sorts of issues with the HF systems for a few months after.

All shocking, scary, hail and brimstone stuff however, it’s not all bad news, the one benefit that we will gain from all this increased activity is to see first hand the ‘magnetic interference’ in it’s best form as the fantastic Aurora Australis……..And lets face it, if the radios aren’t working I will be too busy being outside taking photo graphs anyway 🙂

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Aurora Australis

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