Twice a year, the phenomenon known as solar fade or sun outage can cause disruptions to satellite communications. With so many people relying on cell phones, GPS, satellite television and radio, solar fade has become an annoyance that seems to come around like clockwork each spring and fall. Here’s what causes it and how you can expect it to impact your everyday tech.
What is Solar Fade?
Solar fade occurs when the Sun falls directly in line with satellites in geostationary orbit above Earth. This alignment causes interference that disrupts the signals being transmitted between the satellites and ground stations on Earth. The interference is caused by increased electromagnetic radiation from the Sun’s corona and ionized solar wind particles.
This phenomenon happens reliably every year in the March and September equinox periods. For a few minutes each day as the Sun passes behind the satellites from the perspective of ground stations, communications links can freeze or drop entirely.
How Cell Phones are Affected
Many cell phone carriers rely on satellites for long-distance transmission of calls, texts, and data. When solar fade occurs, customers may experience dropped calls, failed texts, slow internet speeds, or difficulty connecting. The disruption tends to be brief – usually under 10 minutes – but can be frustrating if you are in the middle of an important call or download.
Areas far from cell towers are most susceptible to reliance on satellite connections. Urban users with strong terrestrial tower signals likely won’t notice solar fade. But if you live in a rural location, you can expect more significant impacts.
Does Solar Fade Affect Cell Phone Reception
The severity of the impact of a solar fade on cell phone reception depends on a number of factors, including the strength of the solar flare, the frequency of the radio waves being used, and the location of the cell phone user. Solar fades are more likely to affect cell phone reception at higher frequencies, such as those used for 5G and LTE.
How to Prevent Solar Fade Affecting Cell Phone Reception
There is not much that can be done to prevent solar fades from affecting cell phone reception. However, there are a few things that cell phone users can do to improve their chances of having good reception during a solar fade, such as:
- Moving to a higher location, such as a hilltop or rooftop.
- Using a cell phone signal booster.
- Switching to a different cell phone carrier that has a stronger signal in the area.
If you experience poor cell phone reception during a solar fade, it is important to be patient and try to reconnect later. The ionosphere will typically recover from a solar fade within a few hours.
Disruptions to Satellite TV and Radio
Both satellite television and radio can be interrupted by solar fade. Viewers may see pixelation, distortion, freezing, or temporary loss of some channels. Audio stations can experience static or cut-outs. Most satellite radio and TV issues will be brief, but solar fade can occasionally cause longer outages.
Problems for GPS and Other Satellite Links
Global Positioning System (GPS) signals that connect your phone, car, or wearable devices to navigation satellites can also be disrupted. You may find your position temporarily not updating or routes not calculating during solar fade. Other satellite-based services like satellite internet, emergency beacons, and Internet of Things devices may also be briefly impacted.
When to Expect Solar Fade
Solar fade usually begins a few weeks before the spring and fall equinoxes and continues for a couple weeks after. Outages typically happen between noon and 3 pm local time when the Sun is in line with the satellites overhead.
The exact dates vary each year. Monitoring space weather reports can provide more precise timeframes for your location. Being aware of the solar calendar can help you anticipate potential disruptions to your satellite-connected devices and plan accordingly.
While solar fade can be a nuisance, it is ultimately a temporary and predictable event. As our reliance on satellite technology grows, being prepared for sun outages is important for minimizing their impact. A little awareness goes a long way to coping with this routine interruption in the age of satellite communications.