Preparing for when the sun wakes up

Written by Mark Gibbs, Head of Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre and Dr Mario Bisi, Space Weather Scientist, STFC RAL Space

Experts from across the globe are in the UK this week discussing plans for a new European space mission aimed at improving our space weather forecasting capability.

Discussions will focus on plans to replace the spacecraft at Langrage 1 (L1) and Lagrange 5 (L5) locations. These proposed new spacecrafts are critical if we are not only to maintain our forecast skill but also enhance our ability to forecast damaging space-weather events with newer instruments and a more secure data supply.

The ‘Preparing for when the sun wakes up’ workshop brings together the key scientific/technical experts, science advisors, governments and service providers necessary to ensure international preparedness for future space-weather forecasting capability.

This workshop, the 3rd hosted by the UK, has special significance as it will be the last ‘rallying call’ ahead of the European Space Agency (ESA) Council of Ministers meeting in December where ESA will be asking member states to provide the funding to begin building the L5 spacecraft ready for launch in 2026.

 

During the two-day event (27 & 28 June 2019) around 85 participants, predominantly from Europe and the USA, will examine the progress of the two ESA mission studies, the designs of the instruments that will fly into deep space and how these spacecraft support the global effort to mitigate the impacts of space weather.

Forecasters have already glimpsed the benefit that a L5 mission will give, from the NASA Solar TERestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) mission. The two STEREO spacecraft have spent the last decade slowly making a partial orbit of the Sun providing new viewpoints of it and of the intervening space between the Sun and the Earth.

The USA is planning a mission, complimentary to the European L5 mission, that will replace both the NASA SOlar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and Deep Space Climate ObserVatoRy (DSCOVR) spacecraft at L1. Together these two missions would future proof the current assets and provide enhanced space weather forecasting capability.

Severe Space Weather is recognised as a medium-high risk on the UK Government’s National Risk Register. The impacts of an event similar to the Carrington event of 1859 (which is likely to occur on average once a century) could include localised power blackouts, loss of GPS signals (for navigation and accurate timing), and interruption to vital satellite services, which are critical for the day-to-day services that we rely on. These impacts occur as a result of billions of tonnes of magnetised plasma that is explosively released from the Sun, known as a coronal mass ejection (CME). CME’s can head in any direction but forecasters analyse the infrequent images from SOHO and STEREO to determine the speed, size, and crucially, whether the CME is Earth directed.

The two missions to the L5 and L1 points will provide a reliable real-time flow of images and information to space-weather forecasters around the globe, both replacing and improving on the images and data from SOHO and STEREO, both of which are operating many year’s beyond their design life.

The UK has led the initiative to launch an operational mission to L5, from the early concepts through to the current design studies funded by ESA. The UK, through the UK Space Agency is the largest funder of this ESA initiative. Of the four design studies underway, three are led by UK organisations Airbus, the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s RAL Space and UCL-MSSL.

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