Watching the weather in space

Monitoring space weather
©ESA / P. Carrill

A team of UK space scientists have been selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) to take part in a new mission to better prepare Earth against the damaging effects of space weather.

Extreme space weather events can release a shower of tiny particles, and although this happens millions of miles away from Earth they can have a damaging effect on the electronics and e-infrastructure which are vital to industry across the world.

A recent ESA study estimated the potential socio-economic impact in Europe from a single, extreme space weather event could be about €15bn.

The UK team has been tasked with creating an instrument to sit on ESA’ Spacecraft, which will be stationed at Lagrangian point5 (L5). The instrument will produce images of developing solar activity and deliver early warnings of possibly harmful space weather activity.

ESA Director General Jan Wörner said: “We are relying on European industry to provide the expertise and new infrastructure needed to implement ESA’s Space Situational Awareness Programme.”

The Science and Technology Facilities Council’s RAL Space department has been awarded the ESA contract to lead an international consortium to study the remote-sensing instrumentation package needed for the mission.

Dr Jackie Davies, consortium lead for this study at STFC’s RAL Space said: “This mission is a fantastic opportunity to apply the extensive scientific and space instrument expertise and heritage here in STFC RAL Space to a growing societal problem. We have been advocates for such a space weather mission over many years, based on RAL Space’s leadership of the pioneering Heliospheric Imager instruments on NASA’s flagship STEREO mission.

“It is extremely satisfying to achieve this goal and we are now looking forward to the challenge of leading a multi-instrument, multi-national instrumentation development programme.”

What is space weather?

Space weather is the disturbance to Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere caused by enhanced solar activity. Besides emitting a continuous stream of magnetised plasma –known as solar wind – the Sun occasionally expels billions of tonnes of matter, threaded with magnetic fields, which expand outwards through space in colossal-scale coronal mass ejections (CMEs).

These immense clouds of matter usually miss Earth, but if a CME passes over our planet it can potentially cause a wide range of adverse effects, including impacts on satellites in orbit, navigation systems, terrestrial power grids and data and communication networks.

Providing accurate advanced warnings is becoming increasingly critical, as improved warning times for major events would allow power grid operators to take measures to protect their networks.

Professor Mike Hapgood, RAL Space scientist and Chair of the UK Space Environment Impacts Expert Group, said: “I am delighted that the UK is leading several key roles in ESA’s plan for a spacecraft at L5. This reflects the UK’s leadership in space weather science and engineering activities.

This mission will help us take more effective action ahead of solar storms that could otherwise cause economic disruption costing billions of pounds, through adverse effects on many vital technologies such as power grids and satellite navigation.”

 

SciTech Europa spoke to ESA’s Juha-Pekka about the reasons why it is important to monitor space weather.

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