Airbus reveals concept for satellite to monitor space weather

Airbus reveals concept for a satellite to monitor space weather and predict when bursts of energy from the Sun could affect Earth

  • Airbus is one of four firms working on designs for the European Space Agency
  • The monitoring satellite will follow behind the Earth as it orbits around the sun
  • It will observe storm systems in the solar wind before they reach our planet
  • The charged particles and magnetic fields of the wind can disrupt tech on Earth

A satellite that will monitor the sun for signs of impending and dangerous space weather before such batters the Earth is being developed by aerospace firm Airbus.

The Lagrange satellite will follow the Earth along its orbit, maintaining a view on the side of the side of the Sun that is about to rotate into the view of the Earth.

Bursts of charged particles and magnetic fields from the Sun form the so-called space weather.

Peaks in the solar wind have the potential to interfere with both orbiting satellites and Earth-based communications technologies and even power grids.

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A satellite that will monitor the sun for signs of impending and dangerous space weather before such batters the Earth is being developed by aerospace firm Airbus

The UK arm of Airbus, which is headquartered in the Netherlands, is one of four firms developing space weather monitoring concepts for the European Space Agency.

High-energy solar storms have the potential to cause billions of pounds of economic damage if, for example, they took out our satellite-based navigation systems.

The most powerful discharges come in eruptions called ‘coronal mass ejections’ (CMEs), which expel billions of tons of charged particles bound in magnetic fields that can be larger than the Earth itself.

The European Space Science Committee — which is part of the European Science Foundation — presented a series of recommendations to the European Space Agency for improved resiliency against space weather events on October 10, 2019. 

The document calls for more research in the field, Europe-wide coordination in space monitoring efforts, improved storm forecast models and an improvement in space weather observation systems.

The intended construction European Space Agency’s Lagrange satellite will help address that final need. 

‘Space weather is one of these areas where scientific knowledge, societal aspects and economic interest are intrinsically linked,’ said report author Hermann Opgenoorth of the Swedish Institute of Space Physics in Uppsala.

‘Our study committee identified actionable recommendations that would strengthen Europe’s knowledge and preparedness,’ he added. 

‘Space Weather is strongly associated with modern societies,’ added European Space Science Committee chair Athena Coustenis.

‘European citizens’ daily life depends to a great extent on assets and services that can be impacted by disruptions caused by solar activity.’

‘I am glad that the European Space Sciences Committee decided to address this important issue and to facilitate the definition of robust recommendations.’

The Lagrange satellite will follow the Earth along its orbit, maintaining a view on the side of the side of the Sun that is about to rotate into the view of the Earth

The UK arm of Airbus, which is headquartered in the Netherlands, is one of four firms developing space weather monitoring concepts for the European Space Agency

The proposed satellite’s name is a reference to how it will operate from one of the so-called ‘Lagrange Points’, which are sweetspots around the Earth and Sun where various forces — including gravity and orbital motion — are balanced out.

At these still points, objects retain their relative position with respect to both the Earth and the Sun, rather than falling into orbit around one of the other. 

The Lagrange satellite will sit at ‘Lagrangian Point 5’ (L5), essentially following the Earth in its orbit while maintaining an advanced view of the side of the Sun which is about to rotate into the view of the Earth.

This will allow it to have a ‘sneak peak’ at impending solar storms well before they have any impact on the Earth.

‘Just because the spacecraft is not aligned with Earth and the Sun does not mean it will not be affected by the space weather events it will be monitoring,’ said European Space Agency space environment specialist Piers Jiggens. 

‘This is because the solar magnetic field, which high energy particles follow, is curved because of the Sun’s rotation, a phenomenon known as the “Parker spiral”.’

‘What this means is that the fastest charged particles from a CME event will reach Lagrange in a matter of minutes after an eruption.’

It is hoped that the Lagrange satellite will be aided in its mission by a US-administered counterpart, which would be parked at Lagrangian Point 1, directly between the Sun and the Earth.

The Lagrange satellite will sit at ‘Lagrangian Point 5’ (L5), pictured, essentially following the Earth in its orbit while maintaining an advanced view of the side of the Sun which is about to rotate into the view of the Earth

The UK Government, which supports the Lagrange feasibility studies by means of its membership of the European Space Agency, put forward a further £20 million (around $25 million) towards space weather research last month. 

The lion’s share of this funding will be directed to the UK Met Office — Britain’s centre of excellence for space weather studies — whose experts work closely with US-based counterparts to issue forecasts and warnings to relevant parties.

Among these recipients are satellite operators, who use the alerts to determine when to turn their spacecraft as to shield sensitive electronics from the worst impacts of solar storms.

Delegates from the European Space Agency’s member state will meet in late November, where they will discuss funding the next phase of this project. 

The European Space Science Committee’s full series of recommendations were published in the Journal of Space Weather and Space Climate. 

The European Space Science Committee — which is part of the European Science Foundation — presented a series of recommendations to the European Space Agency for improved resiliency against space weather events on October 10, 2019

The solar magnetic field, which high energy particles follow, is curved because of the Sun’s rotation, a phenomenon known as the Parker spiral, pictured

WHAT ARE SOLAR STORMS AND ARE THEY DANGEROUS?

Solar storms, or solar activity, can be divided into four main components that can have impacts on Earth:  

  • Solar flares: A large explosion in the sun’s atmosphere. These flares are made of photons that travel out directly from the flare site. Solar flares impact Earth only when they occur on the side of the sun facing Earth.  
  • Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s): Large clouds of plasma and magnetic field that erupt from the sun. These clouds can erupt in any direction, and then continue on in that direction, plowing through solar wind. These clouds only cause impacts to Earth when they’re aimed at Earth. 
  • High-speed solar wind streams: These come from coronal holes on the sun, which form anywhere on the sun and usually only when they are closer to the solar equator do the winds impact Earth. 
  • Solar energetic particles: High-energy charged particles thought to be released primarily by shocks formed at the front of coronal mass ejections and solar flares. When a CME cloud plows through solar wind, solar energetic particles can be produced and because they are charged, they follow the magnetic field lines between the Sun and Earth. Only charged particles that follow magnetic field lines that intersect Earth will have an impact. 

While these may seem dangerous, astronauts are not in immediate danger of these phenomena because of the relatively low orbit of manned missions.

However, they do have to be concerned about cumulative exposure during space walks.

This photo shows the sun’s coronal holes in an x-ray image. The outer solar atmosphere, the corona, is structured by strong magnetic fields, which when closed can cause the atmosphere to suddenly and violently release bubbles or tongues of gas and magnetic fields called coronal mass ejections

The damage caused by solar storms 

Solar flares can damage satellites and have an enormous financial cost.

The charged particles can also threaten airlines by disturbing Earth’s magnetic field.

Very large flares can even create currents within electricity grids and knock out energy supplies.

When Coronal Mass Ejections strike Earth they cause geomagnetic storms and enhanced aurora.

They can disrupt radio waves, GPS coordinates and overload electrical systems.

A large influx of energy could flow into high voltage power grids and permanently damage transformers.

This could shut off businesses and homes around the world. 

Source: NASA – Solar Storm and Space Weather 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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