Storms occur when the Sun ejects super-heated radioactive material, and can disrupt modern technology by causing geomagnetic storms affecting satellite operation and navigation, communication systems and power grids.
A recent ESA study estimated the potential socio-economic impact in Europe from a single, extreme space weather event could reach 15 billion Euros. However much of this disruption could be avoided through accurate forecasting.
The mission called ‘Lagrange’ will see a spacecraft placed in a fixed point between the Sun and Earth. It is named after ‘lagrange points’ which are areas between two large bodies where the gravitational forces balance out, allowing an object to be ‘parked’ between them.
“Space weather is ranked as the fifth most important risk in the latest UK National Risk Register as being high likelihood, medium risk to our everyday lives in the UK,” said Dr Jonny Rae (UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory) who is helping to design solar wind monitors.
“But at the same time, we are significantly expanding the number of operational satellites through new technologies and services for applications such as mobile phones, TV, navigation, financial services and insurance, as well as Earth observation, so it is increasingly important to set up early warning systems.”
Solar activity can impact satellite navigation services, like Galileo, due to space weather effects on the upper atmosphere. This in turn can affect aviation, road transport, shipping and any activities that depend on precise positioning.
On Earth, commercial airlines may also experience damage to aircraft electronics and increased radiation doses to crews at long-haul aircraft altitudes. Space weather effects on the ground can include damage and disruption to power distribution networks, increased pipeline corrosion and degradation of radio communications.
In the past there have been several large geomagnetic storms that today would cause significant damage to our modern electronic world. In 1989, the eastern seaboard of the US and Canada was left without power for nine hours.
In a 2003, Sweden experienced a power blackout and it was estimated that 10 per cent of the world’s satellite fleet suffered some sort of anomaly or malfunction.
In 1859 a huge solar storm, dubbed the ‘Carrington Event’ knocked out telegraph systems across the globe, in some cases giving operators electric shocks. It was so powerful that some telegraph systems continued to work even though the electricity supply had been cut off.
Solar storms are also responsible for the spectacular auroras seen near the Poles.
The UK Space Agency committed €22 million, over 4 years to ESA’s Space Situational Awareness (SSA) programme.
The ESA is planning to select a final design for the spacecraft and its instruments in around 18 months.
Science Minister Sam Gyimah said: “This project has the potential for UK space and engineering expertise to help ensure vital communications, navigation and power networks are protected, and is a great example of what we can achieve through continued scientific collaboration with our European partners.”