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New research finds smartphones can detect solar storms

Press Release From: American Geophysical Union
Posted: Monday, May 24, 2021

Your cell phone may be able to detect geomagnetic storms that buffet Earth’s magnetic field, potentially improving scientists’ understanding of space weather but also causing potentially significant errors in some applications.  

A new study in the AGU journal Space Weather, which publishes research addressing the space environment’s impact on human endeavors and technology, tested several popular models of cellphones in simulated geomagnetic storms.

Key takeaways from the new study include: 

  • Cellphone magnetometers can detect very small magnetic field changes that accompany the strongest geomagnetic storms, especially at higher latitudes in North America.
  • If millions of phones can sense changes in Earth’s magnetic field, they could potentially create a vast observatory to help scientists better understand geomagnetic storms.
  • Although magnetometer chips are relied upon by apps like Uber, AllTrails, compass apps and other map services to detect which direction you are facing, additional uses are being explored, including as a backup location tool for places where GPS satellites signals don’t reach.
  • Space weather effects on magnetometer chips can cause significant errors.

“Smartphone magnetometers are being commercially explored for applications as diverse as locating customers in shopping malls for targeted advertising to precision needle-guided surgery,” writes the study’s author and NASA scientist Sten Odenwald, highlighting where space weather-induced errors could cause problems. 

AGU supports 130,000 enthusiasts to experts worldwide in Earth and space sciences. Our programs include serving as a scholarly publisher, convening virtual and in-person events and providing career support.

More information about this study can be found here. For questions about this research please contact Sten Odenwald at odenwald@astronomycafe.net.

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