The UK is stepping up preparations for solar storms that could play havoc with satellites, planes and power grids as “space weather” nears an 11-year peak, The National has been told.
A design is to be approved this week for a monitoring system to make Britain better at forecasting blasts of energy from the Sun.
Six prediction models are being built as the military and the private sector ask scientists for an operational system to give them more warning.
“So many things rely on satellite navigation and if we have a big storm those might get disrupted,” said Mike Hapgood, a member of the expert group that advises the government on space weather.
“A trivial example, but actually quite important economically, is the guy delivering your internet shopping. How many of them actually know the way to your house and how many are just following the sat nav?”
Britain is also joining eight other countries in building a new telescope to better understand the Sun’s surface.
Scientists warn today’s digital society is vulnerable to the effects of solar flares and clouds of plasma known as coronal mass ejections.
The last severe solar storm was the so-called Carrington event in 1859 but government planning documents say they might reoccur every 200 years or so.
A smaller event in 1989 caused a power cut in Canada and a mass ejection narrowly missed our planet in 2012. Last year, 38 satellites belonging to Elon Musk’s SpaceX were destroyed by a geomagnetic storm after launch.
The Sun’s 11-year cycle is now nearing its “solar maximum” when activity on its surface reaches a peak, expected in 2025.
“We always had space weather storms, that’s not news,” said Robertus von Fay-Siebenburgen, a University of Sheffield physicist and a principal investigator on the planned new telescope.
"The difference is that now our society depends on high tech, and high tech is very sensitive to space-weather phenomena.
“The question is not any more whether but when such a phenomenon will occur. So we need to understand our big neighbour, the Sun.”
Space weather forecast
Nasa detected a strong solar flare just this month. The UK’s Met Office has an operations centre dedicated to space weather but warnings could arrive mere minutes or hours in advance.
Scientists hope to add to the Met Office’s arsenal with a new ground-based monitor designed by Lancaster University, the design of which is expected be signed off this week.
The aim is to revive a technology that was first used globally in the 1950s but relied on toxic chemicals and is no longer present in the UK, said the instrument’s lead developer Michael Aspinall.
“What we’re trying to do is reinvigorate the ground-level neutron-monitoring network,” he said.
The new nine-nation telescope, a project involving six UK universities, will monitor the solar chromosphere to help scientists predict imminent storms.
It is also hoped a European spacecraft known as Vigil, which will position itself between the Earth and Sun, will act as a lookout for approaching storms when it is launched this decade.
“If a spacecraft is near the Earth, you can see a coronal mass injection coming head on," said Mr Hapgood. "So you can get its direction quite well but it’s very hard to judge when it’s going to arrive.
“If you have a side view, which is what Vigil does, as well as the head-on, you can get the speed.”
Britain this month relaunched a National Space Council, co-chaired by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, with a meeting in which 68 pages of research were made public on how space affects the UK.
The documents said critical national infrastructure such as railways, emergency services, transformers, radio communications and satellites could be affected by a solar storm.
The government has been advised that precise timings used by financial markets could be knocked off course if a storm affects satellites. The positioning of surveillance spacecraft might be affected by atmospheric drag.
“The more scary one is the risk of collisions between satellites. If we have more of this drag, there’s more uncertainty in knowing where the spacecraft’s going to go, so estimating those collisions becomes more difficult,” said Mr Hapgood.
Transport officials have looked into the impact on aircraft, as electronics could be vulnerable to radiation even if passengers and crew were able to survive a dose, he said.
On the ground, space weather could also affect navigation and large factories might have to rethink production.
Energy supply is also a concern, with doubts raised by insiders whether Britain’s grid is equipped for a severe solar storm it has never faced before.
The National Grid has drawn up contingency plans in case of severe space weather, which could cause stray currents on power lines that damage electrical transformers.
UK officials hope their preparations will knock £13 billion ($16.7 billion) off the cost of any extreme space weather event.
However, some of the new monitoring equipment will not be ready for the coming solar maximum and a storm can come at any time – much as a heavy rainstorm can strike in summer, said Mr Hapgood.
While scientists can give about two hours’ reliable warning, perhaps more with a little less certainty, according to Prof von Fay-Siebenburgen, the sectors at risk want more time to prepare.
“Of course five minutes before, the probability is very high, but who cares about five minutes? We really need hours and days,” said the physicist, who said a forecast could never be absolutely certain and could prove wrong.
“If this would happen too frequently, people would lose faith. So because of that, our prediction has to be as good as possible and we really should achieve 95 per cent. We should be in that ball-park figure.
“That we can achieve. That’s not science fiction, that can be done. But for that we need a little bit of investment, we need to have the right telescopes, we need to have the right warning system and what is very important is that we need to have governments listen.”