Posted 21 May 2021 in Blog, Space.

We know we face risks from space due to meteor strikes and debris from defunct satellites or spent rockets. However, fewer of us are aware of the potential threat from space weather caused by solar activity.

Space weather – and in particular solar storms – holds the potential to cause significant disruption for life on Earth.

What is space weather?

‘Space weather’ refers to phenomena that occur due to activities on the sun’s surface and also non-solar activity.

On Earth, we tend to focus on solar activity, such as solar flares, coronal mass ejections and high-speed solar winds.

We have many ways to monitor solar activity and interpret the data, and we understand the potential impact from the different types of activity that we observe. But we still have more to learn and need to improve the space weather systems we have in place.

Why is space weather suddenly a problem now?

People started appreciating the consequences of space weather more than a century ago. Solar activity was recorded even earlier.

This century, however, we have become totally dependent on satellites and other systems with sensitive electronics, and on electrical systems, all of which can be severely affected by space weather. So it is only now that nations have recognized the true threat from space weather.

What is at risk?

Among the many areas at risk from space weather are:

  • electrical power grids
  • communications systems (High Frequency radio; terrestrial and satellite mobile and broadcasting)
  • pipelines, railway networks and trans-oceanic communications cables
  • satellites and services they provide, such as GNSS positioning, navigation and timing systems
  • aircraft systems
  • passengers in aircraft and humans in space.
Medium-class coronal mass ejection from the sun on 29 November 2020, captured by the SOHO mission. Image copyright SOHO (ESA & NASA)
Medium-class coronal mass ejection from the sun on 29 November 2020, captured by the SOHO mission. © SOHO (ESA & NASA)

What are we looking for?

The key events of concern are the coronal mass ejections that the sun sometimes emits – these are bursts of radiation and gigantic clouds of magnetized plasma.

When these are discharged in our direction, they can interact with the Earth’s magnetic field, causing geomagnetic storms and inducing currents in the ground. Both can interfere with critical infrastructure, such as power grids and communication and navigation systems. They can also affect systems reliant on sensitive electronics, including satellites and aircraft.

Extreme space weather events of this kind are usually referred to as ‘solar superstorms’.

How often do solar superstorms happen?

There is evidence to suggest that a solar superstorm probably only occurs once every 100 or 200 years. Certainly, there has not been one since the start of the space age.

However, if one happened now, its impact would be very high because of our dependency on critical infrastructure and satellite systems. As a result, many nations list extreme space weather in their national risk registers.

It is not a case of ‘if’ the next superstorm will happen, but ‘when’. So it is very important that we are prepared and do all we can to monitor and mitigate for these eventualities.

ESA's planned space weather mission. Image copyright: ESA/A. Baker, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO
ESA’s planned space weather mission will monitor, ‘nowcast’ and forecast potentially dangerous solar events, giving us time to protect ‘at risk’ infrastructure on Earth and/or life in space. © ESA/A. Baker, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Where are we now?

Space weather is highly complex. Some of the science is well understood, but some critical aspects are not.

In addition, it is a major challenge to provide accurate forecasting and to capture real-time data about space weather and present it quickly for organizations that need it, so that they can defend their services and protect us.

One of the organizations providing space weather data is the European Space Agency (ESA). RHEA is working with ESA to develop a new overall system design for its Space Weather Services.

Find out more

This blog post is based on an article in OpenSpace 26, RHEA’s thought leadership magazine published in July 2020.

You can read the complete article on space weather services, along with other features on space, security, quantum computing and more, by subscribing to OpenSpace.