NASA is teaming up with a Fredericton researcher to better understand a layer of the planet far above our heads.

The unique research could improve the accuracy of global positioning systems and it could eventually help early detection systems for tsunamis.

Richard Langley, a professor at the University of New Brunswick, will be working with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to better understand how the ionosphere affects global positioning systems. 

"GPS satellites are much higher than the ionosphere," Langley said.

Inosphere

This image shows the Earth with the ionosphere highlighted in the background. When the ionosphere appears like this at night it is known as the Northern Lights. (Submitted by UNB's Department of Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering)

"So the signals from the satellites have to come down through the ionosphere to receivers on or near the Earth's surface. And as they come down through the ionosphere they get a little distorted." 

The ionosphere is a thick layer of the Earth's atmosphere made up of electrons and charged atoms. It is the section of the sky that lights up with the Northern Lights when the sun throws too much radiation in the planet’s direction. 

"When you see Auroras in the sky, that's when you can tell the ionosphere is a bit disturbed," says Langley. 

Those disturbances can throw GPS accuracy off, impacting everything from cell signals to survey equipment.

'It has the potential to save a lot of lives.' - Richard Langley, University of New Brunswick professor

Even the world's stock exchanges can be affected by these distortions because they rely on GPS for extremely precise time measurements. 

"The average consumer may not notice these variances," says Langley.

"But high precision applications, like for scientific applications, we actually always see the effect of the ionosphere." 

Langley said he is also hoping to help pioneer early detection methods for natural disasters.

Applications for earthquake and tsunami warning systems are already being considered using the research gained from the partnership 

“The energy from that water displacement [from tsunamis that follow underwater earthquakes] actually propagates up all the way into the atmosphere, all the way to the ionosphere," says Langley. 

"It basically moves around the electrons up there and GPS signals coming down from the satellites, through the ionosphere, pick up those small variations. It has the potential to save a lot of lives."

Historical problems with solar flares

Large solar flares from the sun can have such a large impact the ionosphere that communication systems on Earth, such as cell phones, can stop working for periods of time.

Canadian Cassiope satellite

The Canadian Cassiope satellite, which was launched in September 2013, will be providing Richard Langley and NASA the data that they will be using to research the ionosphere. (Submitted by UNB's Department of Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering)

A massive solar storm in 1859, called the Carrington Event, was so strong it managed to knock out some of Earth's telegraph systems. 

"The effect on the Earth's magnetic field was so strong that currents were set up," says Langley.

"Those currents were so strong that telegraphs could run without batteries. There was enough current from this disturbance that it could run the telegraphs. And in some cases there was too much and rumour has it started small fires."  

A similar event could knock out modern communications, potentially worldwide. So Langley’s research has important implications.  

"Luckily we haven't had one of those again," says Langley. 

"It seems to be a one-in-100-year, or a one-in-a-200-year, event."