Space weather forecasts to protect vital technologies from solar storms

Posted on 9 Jan 2014 by Tim Brown

The UK will become one of a small number of countries to forecast the weather in space in order to help prevent severe solar flares, space storms and solar wind from disrupting satellites, GPS, power grids and radio communications.

According to the the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the £4.6m investment in this innovative system will help “protect the technologies our day-to-day lives rely on.”

“The sun is in constant flux, and the possibly damaging impact of this solar activity is growing as people become more reliant on satellite technology,” said Universities and Science Minister, David Willetts.

“Space is one of the Eight Great Technologies of the future and I’m pleased that this worthwhile project has received the funding it’s due. These forecasts will ensure that businesses can plan ahead, keeping us at the forefront of the global race.”

The project, which will be delivered over the next three years, will allow the Met Office to build on its partnership with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service, sharing knowledge and expertise in space weather forecasting.

Space forecasts will start in spring 2014, but it will be autumn before the service is operating fully.

According to Wired, solar flares, can cause HF radio blackouts, and because they only take about 8.5 minutes to arrive in Earth’s atmosphere, they are very hard to see coming. By comparison, radiation storms, which can take between ten minutes to an hour to hit Earth, can cause radiation damage to astronauts and airline passengers over the polar regions.

More serious are CME large plasma bubbles, which cause geomagnetic storms (which result in the Aurora Borealis) that can impact electricity grids and disrupt the ionosphere, although they are quite easy to predict given that they take between 17 hours and 39 days to arrive.

Andrew Richards, a risk and resilience analyst for National Grid, said that round the clock UK forecasting service for space weather is “essential as part of National Grid’s procedures for running the electricity transmission network securely and safely. It is great news for National Grid that the Met Office has secured funding for its space weather forecasting operations.”