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 …

  1. Alister Silver badge

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

    1. tmTM

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

    2. arctic_haze Silver badge

      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.

      1. Ole Juul

        Blackhat gardeners

        what's next

      2. Anonymous Coward
        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? :)

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    OK..

    .. who grassed on the lawnmower guy?

  3. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

    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.

    1. Alexander J. Martin
      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 ->

      1. swarfega

        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. :)

  4. tiggity Silver badge

    Lawnmower man

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

    1. Dave 32
      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

      1. Aus Tech

        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.

        1. ChrisBedford

          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.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            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 :)

          2. Anonymous Coward
            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.

  5. Dead Parrot

    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.

  6. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "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.

    1. Old Tom

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

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

    2. Anonymous Coward
      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!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: "what had caused the huge anomaly"

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

    3. Dead Parrot

      Re: "what had caused the huge anomaly"

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

      1. MondoMan

        Re: "what had caused the huge anomaly"

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

    4. earl grey Silver badge
      Paris Hilton

      Re: "what had caused the huge anomaly"

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

      She knows why.

  7. AMBxx Silver badge
    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!

  8. AndrueC Silver badge
    Joke

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

  9. Version 1.0 Silver badge
    Facepalm

    One sensor?

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

    1. gypsythief

      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?

      1. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge

        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.

    2. Tom 7 Silver badge

      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.

      1. ridley
        Mushroom

        Re: One sensor?

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

        1. IanRS

          Re: One sensor?

          But you will if you want the advance warning.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    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!

    1. Vinyl-Junkie
      Black Helicopters

      Re: Sheep

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

      1. ridley

        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

        1. Vinyl-Junkie

          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).

    2. AndrueC Silver badge
      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.

    3. Pompous Git Silver badge

      Re: Sheep

      Magnetically inert sheep!

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

  11. andy gibson

    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

  12. Marcus Fil

    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"

    1. stucs201

      Re: Obi-Wan:

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

    2. Ian Emery Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Obi-Wan:

      @ Marcus Fil

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

  13. Vinyl-Junkie
    Coat

    Me? I'm just a lawnmower...

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

    (With apologies to Genesis)

  14. Anonymous Coward
    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.

    1. Chris G 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.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        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!

      2. Anonymous Coward
        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)

    2. Aus Tech

      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.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        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?

  15. W4YBO
    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...

    1. ChrisBedford

      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...?

      1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

        Re: Intermittent interruptions...

        Had something like that sometime in the early 1990ies. LAN cable next to power line for a freight elevator in a warehouse. No problems when the elevator was used - except on the odd day when the elevator was loaded to maximum capacity. Took some time to find the fault...

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Intermittent interruptions...

        I have an even more moronic one. A certain Port Authority running their LAN across the harbour to support not only DATA but also IP telephony for main office phones. Pretty sure they bought their dishes at Maplins or something and bodged them in themselves. Regular outages of the far side of the network due to, wait for it, .... entirely predictable crane movement paths on RAILS in the port. Plus, you know, also, SHIPS.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Intermittent interruptions...

      Nice, I used to work on a certain prison extension project, mostly done in a modular prefab block way.

      So, *huge* artic-HGV-cranes with nice big extensible booms. This old dear comes over and complains that she gets cut off from watching Corrie regularly ... some compromise on timing possibly reached, with an element of "bite me, love, we'ļl be gone soon anyway" :D

  16. hi_robb

    Hmm

    So I guess the alert isn't valid any mower...

  17. Nick Kew Silver badge

    Hancock rides again

    Radio 4 recently broadcast a reconstructed episode of Hancock's Half Hour, where he gets himself a telescope and starts seeing things. This story could so easily have been one of his.

    BBC website isn't responding just now, so I can't follow/confirm the link from google, but the Tony Hancock Appreciation Society's website lists it as Series 3, episode 7.

  18. David Roberts Silver badge
    Angel

    Anyone else..

    ..forward this to El Reg?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Anyone else..

      Yes.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Seen the Aurora from North Wales

    I've seen the Aurora from North Wales (specifically, Anglesey), as have others.

    But I guess Traffic Wales can't blame magnetic disturbance for yesterday's "Systems Failure" which closed the A55 tunnel under the River Conwy for a couple of hours...

    http://www.dailypost.co.uk/news/north-wales-news/conwy-tunnel-closure-chaos-caused-11793225

    http://highwaysmagazine.co.uk/costain-updating-tunnel-safety-systems-on-a55/

    http://corecontrols.co.uk/case-studies/penyclip-tunnel-control-system/

    Anyone shed any light on that? Anyone at El Reg want to make a phone call or two?

    Maybe the PC in charge got a delayed auto-update to Win10 and decided to take the evening off, and the dailover system did the same?

  20. Kimo

    Instead of asking maintenance not to mow around the sensor, how about not sending an automated alert unless more than one array picks up a signal withing a short period of each other? A single anomaly should go to a live human for verification before going out as an email blast.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge
      Trollface

      Yeah, but our modern society has no time for checking data - it has to be spewed out ASAP, verification can come later.

    2. MondoMan

      BTDT

      I remember chatting with a Caltech student some decades ago as he described his friends' plan to set off the Southern California major earthquake alert system by simultaneously detonating (very) small charges near a number of Caltech seismographs in the region. Apparently, at least 3 seismographs had to register an event for the major earthquake alert to be triggered. This was in pre-GPS days, so getting the timing right was the tricky part of the plan.

  21. jms222

    I know at the antenna array in here in Cambridge they simply kept sheep in the field and only had the occasional problem with them jumping up and chomping through cables.

  22. Baldy50

    Well...

    Nearly and auroraful mistake.

    1. Lars Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: Well...

      I really hope nobody committed suicide because of this.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Well...

      The email was a load of borealis

    3. ChrisBedford
      Coffee/keyboard

      Re: Well...

      Nearly and auroraful mistake

      Not nearly as auroraful as that joke.

  23. GrapeBunch Bronze badge

    Of course,

    the Spitfire had a wooden body. The Lancaster idn't. It wasn't a wooden lawnmower, so the sun didn't spit fire. What was all the fuss about?

  24. Marketing Hack Silver badge

    That must have been one hell of a lawnmower!!

    I guess that's what happens when your groundskeeper is a nitro-powered funny car mechanic on weekends

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Thats no lawnmower....

    Better make the jump to lightspeed, Chewie check the calculations please.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I've seen the northern lights dance in the air

    I was on a lawnmower tour of Alaska...

  27. ChrisBedford

    Unfortunately the University doesn't know what an aurora is

    Unfortunately, auroras (Northern Lights) aren’t the only thing

    ...mmm only there's an identical, though weaker, effect over the Southern polar region known as Aurora Australis so you can't call auroras "Northern" lights can you.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Unfortunately the University doesn't know what an aurora is

      there's at least one US military aurora out there, too

      (c) a dozen YouTube types ...

      1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

        Re: Unfortunately the University doesn't know what an aurora is

        Project Flashlight?

  28. The Oracle

    Lawnmower man

    I say old chap, whilst you are mowing the lawn, try not to disturb those Aurora Borealis, they are quite rare you know.

  29. Stevie Silver badge

    Bah!

    We’ll work with the facilities team to try and avoid an incident such as this occurring in the future!”

    Or, you know, look at all the other instruments before yelling about science.

    SEE: Particles that go faster than light, water discovered on Mars, intelligent signals arriving from space.

  30. Velv Silver badge
    Coat

    Makes a change. Normally it's the cleaner getting the blame for removing a plug so she* could plug the Hoover¥ in

    *she/he

    ¥ other brands of vacuum cleaner are available.

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