Space weather monitoring to get major upgrade in new research programme

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The UK’s ability to predict solar superstorms and other severe space weather events is to get a significant upgrade with the launch of two major research projects led by the University of Birmingham with the support of the University of Southampton.

The research is part of a £20 million programme called SWIMMR (Space Weather Instrumentation, Measurement, Modelling and Risk), funded by UK Research and Innovation and designed to deliver improved monitoring capability to the UK’s Met Office.

Professor Hugh Lewis from the University of Southampton will support a £3.7 million effort in better understanding the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Turbulent space weather, largely caused by radiation, energetic particles and plasma emitted by the Sun, can cause huge disruption on Earth. Extreme events can overcome the Earth’s planetary defences with potentially severe consequences. Risks include widespread and long lasting power cuts, disrupted satellite, GPS and radio communication technologies, and air passenger and astronaut safety.

Extreme space weather has been included in the Government’s Risk Register – an overview of the key emergencies which could cause significant disruption in the UK – since its 2012 update. The likelihood is currently judged to be at the same level as that of an emerging infectious disease.

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Space debris image from Prof Lewis’s DAMAGE model

Professor Lewis’s expertise in space debris will form part of the effort to investigate the thermosphere, the neutral part of the Earth’s upper atmosphere affecting the orbits of satellites, which can result in satellite collisions without suitable modelling. The project will use the DAMAGE model he created to look at how the orbits of satellites are affected by short and long-term changes in the thermosphere, and what the implications might be for space debris.

By the end of the grant the developed models will be deployed operationally at the UK Met Office.

Professor Lewis said: “With so much of our day to day lives relying on services we get from space, it’s more important than ever to improve our understanding of the upper atmosphere, home to many critical satellites.

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Space debris above Europe

“At the moment, it is difficult to forecast accurately where some satellites are going to be, even just a few days in advance, and this could lead to collisions and the loss of those satellites. At the same time, long-term changes in the thermosphere may lead to the build-up of space debris, with far-reaching consequences for our future use of space. With the SWIMMR-T project, our hope is to improve our knowledge of the important processes taking place in the thermosphere and their implications for satellites and space debris.”

Principal Investigator Dr Sean Elvidge, in the School of Engineering at the University of Birmingham, says: “Only by providing sufficient advance warning, and having robust plans in place for reacting to an extreme event, can we be confident of minimising disruption – and possibly averting disaster.”

The most extreme space weather event on record occurred in 1859, when a huge solar flare and associated major coronal mass ejection reached the Earth. This affected telegraph systems around the world, giving operators electric shocks and, in some cases allowing telegraph operators to continue sending and receiving messages despite the power supplies having been cut. The northern lights, the attractive consequence of space weather, was seen as far south as the Caribbean.

“This level of extreme event tends to occur every 100 years or so,” says Dr Elvidge. “While it’s not possible to be overdue an event of this nature, it is likely that one will occur sometime before the end of this century.”

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