GPS blackout in Pilbara: Update

Claims that a solar flare disrupted signals from the GLONASS satellite network on Tuesday may not be the case.

The West Australian reported that the solar flares had caused outages of the Russian GLONASS system, however a spokesperson for IPA Radio and Space Services at the Bureau of Meteorology has informed Mining Australia that the issue was an internal technical difficulty.

“The source of the problem with GLONASS appears to have been due to a corrupt ephemeris file uploaded by the GLONASS command,” research scientist Mike Terkildsen said.

“The problem caused widespread issues with those GNSS receivers tracking GLONASS.”

He said that it is very rare for for a flare such as this to affect GPS Systems.

“In general, I haven’t heard of flares of that magnitude affecting satellite systems. You’d definitely call this a moderate flares,” he said.

Terkildsen said we are currently at the peak of an 11 year solar cycle, and that flarees of this magnitude occur every couple of days.

“The sun goes through an 11 year solar cycle, it goes from very few flares up to where we are now at the solar maximum where you get a lot more flares, a lot more ejected material… this particular solar max is not  high, although the intensity of the solar maximum itself varies from solar cycle to solar cycle.

“We’ve found that this solar cycle is not particularly high, we really haven’t seen a lot of activity this cycle.”

The West Australian reported that China and the US have their own satellites, which were understood to have not been affected by the solar flare.


The picture opposite comes from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre and shows the mid-level solar flare, which was rated by NASA at M6.5, blending of two wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet light, 131 angstroms in yellow and 171 angstroms in red.

Rio Tinto and AngloGold Ashanti confirmed to the West Australian on Wednesday that mines throughout the Pilbara and Goldfields were affected by the solar flare, which caused outages in the Russian Glonass satellite system.

The Glonass system provides the most comprehensive coverage of regional Australia, making it the main choice for GPS systems used in mine vehicles, especially the remotely controlled systems used by Rio Tinto, and trialled in autonomous haul trucks by BHP and Fortescue Metals.

A customer support email from Caterpillar said the MineStar positioning and monitoring systems underwent outages as the solar flare hit the system.

“This caused positioning issues at several MineStar sites across the globe, both manned and autonomous, including Solomon, Jimblebar, Yandi, Daunia, Toquepala, and Osisko,” the email said.

“Current Glonass status has since improved, as approximately half the 24 satellites are transmitting normally.”

GPS systems are used for fleet monitoring and assignment, for planning and placement of drill and blast operations and for managing processing stockpiles.

Satellite networks are also used for phone coverage by mineral exploration crews in remote areas, which often have no access to ordinary mobile phone coverage.

A spokeswoman for BHP Billiton said that the very few autonomous systems being tested on BHP trucks were affected by the solar activity on Tuesday.

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