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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Solar storms threaten to put the brakes on North Korea’s missiles

The space storm has previously cost billions in damages, and Pyongyang may sideline missile runs to avoid losses

North Korea's independence celebrations scheduled for Saturday may come without planned missiles as space storms brew. South Korea Defense Ministry via AP
North Korea's independence celebrations scheduled for Saturday may come without planned missiles as space storms brew. South Korea Defense Ministry via AP

An occurrence in space that sends electrical currents to the earth may delay Kim Jong-un’s next ballistic missile launch to avoid risking North Korea’s limited technology.

A strong geomagnetic storm warning was extended through Friday by the US Space Weather Prediction Centre, warning that power systems and spacecraft could be impacted. The atmospheric occurrence happens when a surge of energy from the sun mixes with the earth’s magnetic field, sending electric currents into the earth’s atmosphere.

A strong solar storm could shut off power systems, but for spacecraft - such as missiles - orientation problems could ensue. For North Korea, this could take out one of its limited vessels which may be too great of a risk for Mr Jong-un, according to Nexial Research in Tokyo.

“While missiles are generally heavily shielded against radiation, Mr Jong-un may decide not to risk firing one during the solar flares in case they lose data or ancillary equipment,” Lance Gatling, Nexial aerospace consultant, told Bloomberg.

South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said Thursday that North Korea could launch its next missile on Saturday, in celebration of the country’s independence.

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Mr Gatling added that if North Korea carried out the launch, it would provide Japan and the United States the opportunity to test detection and tracking equipment in a storm environment.

Geomagnetic storms occur less frequently than natural disasters, but have the ability to upset airborne objects.

In 2003, the space storms created problems for the aviation industry as communication lines were severed at high altitudes, impacted by the magnetic forces. Airlines were forced to take preventative measures to protect against the exposure which caused communication blackouts, forcing the carriers to reroute high-latitude flights. This cost companies between US$10,000 and $100,000 per rerouted flight, according to an OECD geomagnetic storms report released in 2011. The report said: “The Federal Aviation Administration‘s GPS-augmented aviation navigation guidance was affected by the geomagnetic storms and the FAA could not provide GPS navigational guidance for approximately 30 hours.”