Scientists from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at the University College of London (UCL) are developing a ‘plasma analyser’ that will operate in space to provide early warnings of potentially dangerous space weather.
The team of scientists at the University have received £7 million from the UK Space Agency. Subsequently, the UK and the US will join resources and expertise on a ‘space weather’ forecasting service created to protect the Earth from dangerous solar storms.
Scientists have emphasised that space weather could have a detrimental impact on electrical infrastructure, telecommunications systems, aviation and satellite navigation.
Solar wind released from the sun can travel at 900 kilometres per second at a temperature of more than two million degrees Celsius as it travels through the solar system. Most solar wind is harmless, however, occasionally the sun will release “large bubbles of magnetised plasma” which sometimes follows a solar flare.
This can result in turbulent space weather, including electromagnetic storms which can have a destructive effect on the Earth’s magnetic field.
Dr Graham Turnock, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency said: “Space weather has the potential to cause severe disruption to critical satellite and ground-based infrastructure.”
“It’s essential that we take steps to mitigate this threat through improving our ability to forecast extreme solar activity,” Turnock added.
The UK Space Agency will be collaborating with the European Space Agency (ESA), as well as NASA and NOAA in the United States. The agencies are researching a program that will effectively monitor hazardous space weather through a combination of both space and ground systems. UCL’s plasma analyser will fly on the ESA’s space monitoring mission, while the US is sending its own ‘complementary’ satellite.
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Director of UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, Professor Andrew Fazakerley stated: “UCL has many years of research experience in the science of space weather and in building instruments with which to study it.”
Fazakerley explained that the data generated from solar wind analysis could be crucial and allow the Met Office to issue “timely space weather alerts and warnings to assist Critical National Infrastructure operators to effectively mitigate the risk posed by space weather.”
Business Secretary Greg Clark has pledged that Britain would become a “leader in the new space age”. A new space council and the provision of £20m to ‘Spaceport Cornwall’ will see Virgin Orbit launching satellites from the UK by 2020.