A team of George Mason University scientists has received a federal grant of more than $13 million to work with the Department of the Navy to study and better understand increased solar activity that could potentially cause an “internet apocalypse” disrupting all electronic communications on Earth, including satellite communications.
Research from the grant, which will total $13.6 million in expenditures over five years, will be done in collaboration with the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), and will include state-of-the-art data mining, analysis, and scientific modeling, among other endeavors, led by Mason faculty, students and staff. Under the terms of the contract, Mason provides scientific support for a broad range of astronomy-related activities that are of interest to the U.S. Navy and the nation at large.
“The main focus is on solar activity and the way it can impact systems on Earth,” said principal investigator Peter A. Becker, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy within the College of Science. “This is especially important to the Navy—and more broadly the Department of Defense—because high-energy outbursts from the sun can have a strong negative impact on earthly radio and internet communications. And they can also have a detrimental effect on navigation systems and energy grids on Earth.”
The focus on violent solar activity is the most significant research activity for U.S. citizens as eruptions from the sun’s surface can have devastating consequences 93 million miles away on Earth. This violent activity includes bursts of radiation, high-speed electrons, protons and other highly energetic particles that are launched into space and can disrupt technologies such as the internet that we have come to depend on. Much of this activity can reach Earth in less than a day.
Violent solar storms are expected to become more frequent and more severe over the next 10 years, and they possess the potential to severely interfere with radio transmitters, navigation and GPS, satellite operations and communications, and the electric power grid. Being able to more effectively warn of their occurrences will help better protect the public and our infrastructure.
“The internet was simply not designed to handle this level of communication interference, and, consequently, is considered a very ‘soft’ type of infrastructure,” Becker said. “Hence, the period from 2024 to 2028 is a time when the entire internet could conceivably be knocked out for a period of weeks to months in the event of a really extreme solar flare.”
Such a scenario could create “an unprecedented disaster for modern society, potentially triggering a worldwide recession,” Becker warned, because of the world’s heavy dependence on the internet for information, communications and global commerce.
Becker and his team, which also includes several Mason undergraduate students, will also study black holes and neutron stars. These studies will help scientists understand similar processes occurring in the solar atmosphere and how they can affect life on Earth.
Most of the Mason team’s work will be performed at the NRL in Washington, D.C., although space has also been allocated at George Mason University’s Fairfax Campus to accommodate visiting NRL scientists working on joint space science research projects.
Others researchers working on Becker’s team include associate research professors Tyrel Johnson and Iulia Deneva; senior research administrator Jessica Hanna; research scientists Jacob Smith, Carlos Braga, Natsuha Kuroda, Eliana Nossa Gonzalez and Craig Johnston; senior research scientists Megan DeCesar and Keiji Hayashi, postdoctoral research fellows Sherry Chhabra, Micah Weberg, and Shaheda Shaik.
“Mason scientists are working to explore and understand the nature and level of these dangerous threats to our infrastructure posed by strong solar activity,” Becker said, “and how to predict extreme events and mitigate the damage.”
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