Posted 23 February 2018 in Blog, Space.
The sun occasionally expels billions of tones of matter, threaded with magnetic fields. These immense clouds of matter usually miss Earth, but if one reaches us, it could disrupt Earth’s protective magnetic bubble and upper atmosphere, affecting satellites in orbit, navigation, terrestrial power grids, and data and communication networks. The European Space Agency (ESA) is studying a future European mission that would provide an early warning system for damaging space weather phenomena.

Space weather has already damaged critical infrastructure in the past. In 1989, for example, the entire province of Quebec in Canada suffered a power blackout for nine hours as a result of a solar storm, leaving six million people without electricity for nine hours.

A recent study from ESA estimated the potential socio-economic impact in Europe from a single, extreme space weather event could reach 15 billion Euros. However much of this disruption could be avoided through accurate forecasting.

The new ESA concept mission would provide data for operational applications such as forecasts and nowcasts of solar activity. These are part of ESA’s Space Weather Service Network, which would issue warnings and alerts to scientific, commercial and civil customers when solar activity poses any risk to critical civil and economic activities.

A massive solar flare captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (Credit: NASA/SDO)

The first mission to L5 ever made

The mission concept floated by ESA would aim to provide a preview of such potentially damaging events by putting an observation craft at the 5th Lagrange point (L5), which lies 60 degrees behind Earth’s solar orbit. This would be the first attempt at flying a mission to L5 ever made. A spacecraft placed at this point would effectively be able to monitor the sun from the side, spotting dangerous solar activity before that hemisphere of the sun rotates into view.

Four European industrial and scientific consortiums will develop concepts for flying this mission. Based on the results of ESA’s proposal, a final design will be selected for construction in the next 18 months.