9 June, 2013

Space weather forecasting system used by satellite operators

Weather forecasting is a tricky enough job on Earth, but doing it for the outer atmosphere and beyond is even more problematic. Yet, with more and more satellites orbiting the planet there is increasing pressure to improve this forecasting and prevent damage to expensive equipment.

Severe space weather events are more likely to occur during a period of solar maximum, when activity on the sun’s surface is at its highest. This usually occurs in 11 year cycles.

Over the last few years we have been in a period of solar minimum so satellites have been orbiting in a relatively benign environment. But the number of sunspots is expected to reach a maximum during 2013 and this is expected to lead to an increase in the frequency of geomagnetic storms.

As of May 2012, there were nine hundred and ninety-four satellites orbiting Earth. Five hundred and twenty of these pass through the Van Allen radiation belts. Recent estimates put the total revenue from the satellite industry at $177billion.

In October and November 2003, following a particularly severe geomagnetic storm, forty-seven satellites reported malfunctions and ten were out of action for more than a day.

Satellite operators are keen to get as much warning as they can of impending storms. Using a system developed by the Spacecast project, a team of European experts, led by British Antarctic Survey, is providing forecasts based on years of research.

The system, which is updated every hour, uses satellite data, ground based measurements of the Earth’s magnetic field and computer models to provide the forecasts.  At the moment, they are available for up to three hours ahead.

Severe space weather is now on the UK’s National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies. The loss of revenue from satellite services disrupted due to a severe weather event has been estimated to be as high as $30billion.

Professor Richard Horne, from British Antarctic Survey, said: “The next few years will be a challenging time for satellites as the sun reaches the peak of its eleven year sunspot cycle. The SPACECAST forecasting system will help protect navigation and telecommunications satellites over a range of orbits by forecasting the radiation risk every hour.”

The forecasts are available on the internet at: http://www.fp7-spacecast.eu.


For more information please contact Paul Seagrove in the British Antarctic Survey press office on +44 (0)1223 221414.