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New mission planned to help forecast space weather

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Jul 7, 2015, 12:27 UTC

Sen—A UK consortium, including weather forecasters the Met Office, is proposing a space mission to provide early warning of storms from the Sun.

Called Carrington-L5, it will provide five days notice of hazardous space weather that could damage power and communications networks, and put satellites out of action.

The spacecraft will fly to a point about 150 million km (nearly 100 million miles) behind the Earth, but in the same orbit around the Sun—a stable point known as L5. That will allow it to see activity on the Sun before it spins into view from Earth. And by combining its observations with those from other satellites, it will give experts a 3D view of coronal mass ejections (CMEs) to show if any are heading our way. 

The probe is called Carrington after a British astronomer, Richard Carrington, who spotted a flare on the sun in 1859, from near Redhill, Surrey, that led to the strongest solar storm ever recorded. That storm turned night into day across the world as brilliant auroras lit up the sky right down to the equator. And it wrecked the Victorian equivalent of the Internet as Telegraph operators were knocked out or shocked as an electrical surge set fire to equipment.

CMEs erupt with the force of thousands of nuclear bombs, hurling billions of tons of plasma across space at 1,500 miles per second. The threat comes when one of these is ejected towards Earth. In March 1989, a solar storm plunged six million people into darkness when the power grid was badly damaged in the province of Quebec, Canada.

The UK Government added solar storms to the National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies in 2011, and set up the Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre (MOSWOC) to protect the country from similar events that would today cause much greater damage in out technology-dependent world.

As well as damaging power grids, solar flares can also cause disturbances in the upper atmosphere, or ionosphere, affecting GPS, or satnav, on which organisations including the military, electricity industry, satellite operators and the aviation industry depend.

Current space weather alerts come thanks to NASA satellites that already monitor the Sun, but none of these is designed to provide 24/7 data and they are all ageing rapidly with some already having spent two decades in space.

The UK consortium is proposing the Carrington-L5 mission be launched in 2021. It is being led by rocket-designers Airbus Defence and Space (UK) in conjunction with MOSWOC, which opened for business in Exeter last year. Mullard Space Science Laboratory, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Imperial College London, and National Grid are also on board.

Mark Gibbs, Head of Space Weather at the Met Office, told Sen: “Space weather really affects modern day technology that we rely upon. We saw what relatively modest storms back in 1989 with the power outage in Quebec. A much larger storm could cause bigger problems. 

“Satellites could have their on-board systems upset, so we lose capability from them, but also the part of the atmosphere called the ionosphere would become electrically charged so we would potentially lose GPS signals for two to three days. Most of us think about GPS for our navigation, but its most important use is for timing on things like computer networks, so there will be some disruption there.”

He added: “If you know a storm is going to happen, then warnings can be put out to those who are reliant on GPS and then people can put forward plans to deal with it. 

“It has been so long since we had a big storm, but in that time we have become so reliant on technology that when a storm does occur it is going to catch an awful lot of people unawares. So by planning for it and putting simple mitigation in place we can get round the worst of the problems. 

“Also technology develops so much and so rapidly that we can only estimate what the impact is going to be. There are bound to be other impacts that we haven’t even thought about.”

The Carrington-L5 spacecraft will be modelled on European probes Mars Express and Venus Express, and will operate for at least ten years.

Mission details are being unveiled this week at the National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno, North Wales, by Dr Markos Trichas of Airbus. He said: “Within the UK, we have the heritage and experience to create this mission on a relatively short timescale and at a low overall cost. 

“All components we are planning to use for the Carrington-L5 spacecraft and payload have flown before or are in an advanced stage of development. This will minimise the cost of procurement and massively increase the benefits to our economy while allowing the growth of the UK space industry.”

UK solar scientist Dr Lucie Green, of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Surrey, told Sen: “The fact that the Carrington-L5 concept has been developed in the UK is a real demonstration of the scientific and engineering expertise that we have in this country. 

“UK universities have a long heritage in scientific advances that have revealed the physical processes underlying space weather, and which are now being used in space weather forecasting. And working with companies such as Airbus Defence and Space enables us to take advantage of specific opportunities such as space weather as well as helping the growth of the entire UK space sector.”