back to article False Northern Lights alert issued to entire UK because of a lawnmower

An alert that the Northern Lights would be visible across all of Great Britain last night was wrongly issued because a sit-on lawnmower disturbed scientific instruments. Subscribers to the AuroraWatch UK mailing list were sent a “Red Alert” yesterday; informing them that it would be possible to view the aurora borealis from …

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Well it shows how infrequently the University staff do the lawns, if this is the first time it's happened :)

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I'd laugh if the grounds team suggested the AuroraWatch guys double checked their data for concordance before making a public announcement.

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Infrequent lawn moving

It is possible that they've recently switched from a combustion motor powered one to an electrical one, forgetting why they had originally chosen the non-ecological mover.

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Blackhat gardeners

what's next

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Infrequent lawn moving

What's the betting it was actually a petrol one, but an alternator or similar accessory had caused the magnetometer reading? Not sure I believe "electric ride-on mower". Although seems at least 1 USA company is doing pioneering ones. Would need humungous batteries to do the choppy-choppy as well as drive, bigger than a golf cart needs? Typical ride-on needs 15kW if petrol-only and still lucky to get more than 20 mpg (compare to moped using same size motor getting 50 mpg or more ...)

Perhaps the alternator was getting old and needing some new carbon brushes or rectifier or something like that? :)

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Anonymous Coward

OK..

.. who grassed on the lawnmower guy?

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I thought the alert was odd, as I have been watching the sun closely, and had seen little activity to suggest a coronal mass ejection of any size. In fact, many solar observers had been bemoaning the lack of activity (although a few spots have bubbled up in the last few days). I am surprised, however, that a single station reporting weird values isn't trapped automatically. It would seem easy to detect this as an outlier and ignore it (or flag it to let somebody inspect it before issuing an alert.

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Pint

> I thought the alert was odd, as I have been watching the sun closely,

This is probably my favourite opening line to a comment ever. Have one of these ->

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Honestly I thought it was going to be an H.G. Wells - type intro (or possibly Jules Verne) into a really off-the-wall experience. Superb. :)

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Lawnmower man

Surely we all know the amazing ability of lawnmower man to interfere with computer systems

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Pint

Re: Lawnmower man

Lawnmower Man can affect computer systems almost as devastatingly as Vacuum Cleaner Woman (especially when she unplugs the server so that she can plug her vacuum cleaner in). ;-)

Dave

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Re: Lawnmower man

Ah yes, we've come across that particular outage before. I'm just happy that I wasn't the Administrator involved. The thing that disturbed me the most was how long it took to find out that it was the cleaner who was disrupting their services.

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Re: Lawnmower man

The thing that disturbed me the most was how long it took to find out that it was the cleaner who was disrupting their services

Umm yeah except that is a reference to one of the hoarier urban legends.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Lawnmower man

I used to work with a VAX administrator (no, not the vacuum cleaner ones) who came in one morning and found his terminal wasn't getting anything back when hitting a few keys (space, return, etc).

Seems the cleaner had mistaken his box for an aircon unit and had borrowed its power socket. And not plugged it back in :)

He had to go to a rarely-used room far away across the site and do the necessary :)

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Lawnmower man

Umm yeah except that is a reference to one of the hoarier urban legends.

'fraid not. We had systems in a booth at a large trade show restart for two successive evenings, after the show had closed. Only a notice taped to the power strip (in English & Spanish, this was California) stopped the cleaners from unplugging the server to vacuum the booth.

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Sometimes, the cutting edge...

...is the cutting edge on a lawnmower blade. Eh, science isn't an exact science: If you don't like it, go see what Kim Kardashian is doing today.

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"what had caused the huge anomaly"

The huge anomaly was actually caused by lack of common sense and non-existent correlation between local readings and solar activity.

In order for any sort of aurora to occur, the sun must have surface activity - activity which is at a low point at this time. So correlating whatever reading with current sunspot activity would have nipped that alert in the bud.

Plus : auroras in the UK night sky ? When was the last time that happened ?

Edit : by Jove, apparently it does happen, albeit rarely. My gast is flabbered.

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auroras in the UK night sky ? When was the last time that happened ?

Quite recently - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-35741589

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Anonymous Coward

Re: "what had caused the huge anomaly"

space weather dot com has some nice pictures, predictions etc

a regularly updated image is hosted here:

http://services.swpc.noaa.gov/images/aurora-forecast-northern-hemisphere.png

note: the aurora is measured in GigaWatts (that's quite a lot of PP-3 batteries)

I have successfully transmitted duplex data from Spurn Head, (east Yorks) north via the auroral curtain reflected into central Italy, on occasion. . . before harp was built even!

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Re: "what had caused the huge anomaly"

Also 1989. Too old for you? #greybeard #Z80assembly

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Paris Hilton

Re: "what had caused the huge anomaly"

Well, it's not huge, but it an anomaly....

She knows why.

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Re: "what had caused the huge anomaly"

I see your #Z80assembly and raise you #6502machinelang for 1977's snow in Palo Alto.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: "what had caused the huge anomaly"

Aye but did they send ye yir pizza back, ken fit ah mean?

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FAIL

Needs some checks on the data

At FTSE, the index people, any sudden change in any index rings a bell. Someone then has to run to the front of the office to push a button to confirm the value is correct.

I spent a few days there in 2008 - lots of bells!

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Joke

Grass can interfere with work whether you smoke it or mow it apparently :)

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Facepalm

One sensor?

You based the alert on a report from one sensor - Duh!

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Re: One sensor?

Unfortunately, their primary sensor was offline for maintenance, so they were running off their backup sensors:

"As you may know, the CRK2 (Crooktree, Aberdeen) magnetometer is normally used to issue alerts, however, this had itself been “playing up” and so our system had swapped to LAN2 as a back-up. Unfortunately, it seems our back-up needed a back-up."

But what about a back-up for the back-up for the back-up, eh?

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Re: One sensor?

Unfortunately, their primary sensor was offline for maintenance, so they were running off their backup sensors:

But the article shows graphs of four sensors which seem to correlate with each other apart from the anomalous single sensor reading.

There seems to have been enough data available for them to be able to determine that the reading was actually anomalous.

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Re: One sensor?

I've been signed up for years - first time its happened and I'm quite pleased as it shows I will get messages when the sun explodes.

As for one sensor - I imagine its possible for a small but contained burst to set off just one.

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Mushroom

Re: One sensor?

I dont think you will need a phone app to get the message if the sun explodes.

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Re: One sensor?

But you will if you want the advance warning.

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Anonymous Coward

Sheep

A relative of mine used to work somewhere festooned with large, low frequency aerials of the vertical type

The area involved was many acres, so they used a low tech approach for grass cutting : Magnetically inert sheep!

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Black Helicopters

Re: Sheep

Wouldn't happen to have anything to do with HM Submarines would it? ;)

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Joke

Re: Sheep

A relative of mine used to work somewhere festooned with large, low frequency aerials of the vertical type

The area involved was many acres, so they used a low tech approach for grass cutting : Magnetically inert sheep!

There might still be security concerns. I hope they were all positively vetted.

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Re: Sheep

Not unless it is a VERY tall tower " The antenna length in Republic, Michigan, was approximately 52 kilometers (32 mi)."

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communication_with_submarines

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Re: Sheep; Not unless it is a VERY tall tower

Actually I was thinking VLF rather than ELF; I'm pretty sure the RN never had ELF, but they most definitely had VLF, which doesn't need such big aerials (although they are still between 250 and 390 metres, which is pretty damn tall).

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Re: Sheep

Magnetically inert sheep!

Good luck magnetising sheep! Mind you, there's blokes in New Zealand and the Falklands find them somewhat attractive ;-)

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Groundskeeper Willie

Maybe it was Groundskeeper Willie's tractor that caused it to appear in Skinner's kitchen?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1h8cHUnP9k

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Obi-Wan:

"I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly ....oh, wait a minute"

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Re: Obi-Wan:

That's no aurora. That's a lawnmower.

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Thumb Up

Re: Obi-Wan:

@ Marcus Fil

If only I could upvote you 1,000 times; I even visualised the thespic facial expressions used.

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Coat

Me? I'm just a lawnmower...

...you can tell me by the way I totally disrupt magnetometers!

(With apologies to Genesis)

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Anonymous Coward

ride-on lawnmower’s electric motor

Didn't know you could get electric ride-on mowers now. I'm too out of touch with cutting edge technology.

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Silver badge

Re: ride-on lawnmower’s electric motor

A ride-on mower is going to have a 8HP-20HP+ engine depending on size and make, if it's a petrol model it will most likely have an ignition coil on the flywheel plus a lighting ring to recharge the battery and run headlights (yes they do have them).

A diesel engined mower will usually have a quite powerful permanent magnet alternator. Both types will put out a fairly strong magnetic field, enough to affect a sensitive sensor when close, also the cutters, cylinders or rotary blades can often become magnetised too so quite a lot of strange magnetic field for a sensor to pick up.

From the article, the alert was automatic so I guess they need to improve a bit on the criteria that trigger an alert.

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Re: ride-on lawnmower’s electric motor

Sounds like a pun to me. They don't usually have sufficient power to cause such an anomaly.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: ride-on lawnmower’s electric motor

Now consider the effect upon the local environment of a typical tesla e-sports car , at max regime , dumping fifty kilowatts to each wheel for a two-hundred kilowatt dissipation. Would that disturb 'owt?

Nissan Leaf is a much more respectable eighty kilowatts max consumption . . .can some of this be recycled/harvested by the road?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: ride-on lawnmower’s electric motor

That's exactly what I said and they all didn't upvote me at all, wahh! :) I didn't know about the Noddy electric arrangement on the petrol ones or the magnetised blade tho, is it the rubbing/polishing action on the grass doing the magnetising, I heard metal can get like that for example feeding bins for animals etc on farms, leading to wonky welding arc wandering paths when trying to patch them!

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Anonymous Coward

Re: ride-on lawnmower’s electric motor

Why does the diesel need the proper alternator? Don't doubt you but seems like that might be to charge a beefier battery to start the higher-compression diesel motor? (Otherwise the petrol might be more electricity-hungry, needing electricity for its spark plugs and so on)

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Black Helicopters

Intermittent interruptions...

I tried for several weeks to diagnose an intermittent interruption in a Scientific Atlanta digital satellite receiver. Usually only on Fridays before lunch, but occasionally randomly throughout the week. Worked out to be two causes. First was the guy with a spark transmitter cleverly disguised as a Weedeater brand string trimmer. It generated every frequency from DC to Light and would swamp the LNA on the dish antenna. Had the disk jockey on duty flag the guy down just before the top of the hour to give him a ten minute break. The second cause (random throughout the week) was a private plane at the local airport that just had a radar altimeter installed. When he would fly over, his radar's outgoing pulse would overload the LNA and knock a three second hole in the received audio.

Black helicopter for the radar altimeter...

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Re: Intermittent interruptions...

spark transmitter cleverly disguised as a Weedeater

Many years ago I heard a report (may be apocryphal) of a LAN that worked only in short bursts, which turned out to have been affected by the pulse of an electric fence. Can't imagine who would be so dim as to run a LAN cable (and we are talking RG58, here) so close to the HT line of an electric fence, but I guess... early days + ignorance = dimness...?

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