The proposed mission, named Carrington-L5, would give a five-day warning of hazardous solar activity that could inflict severe damage to infrastructure back on Earth.
Coronal mass ejections (CME), billion-tonne solar plasma eruptions moving towards the Earth at up to 2,500 kilometres per second, can cause extensive and expensive disruption by damaging power, satellite and communication networks. The UK government added solar storms to the National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies in 2011, whilst the Met Office set up a special department, the Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre (MOSWOC), to deal with the threat.
The goal of the project, which also involves teams from the Met Office, Mullard Space Science Laboratory, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and Imperial College London is to provide continuous data from a stable orbit, necessary for the Met Office to provide 5-day forecasts and increase the accuracy of CME arrival forecasts.
According to the team, this would have considerable advantages over existing warning systems, which are based on ageing spacecraft not designed to provide 24/7 data such as NASA’s STEREO project which launched two spacecraft into orbit around the sun in 2006.
The group says it plans to reuse systems developed by Airbus for previous space missions, and will carry all instruments identified by MOSWOC as critical, and will be able to operate for at least a decade even under extreme space weather conditions.
Expected to be able to operate for at least a decade, Carrington-L5 would utilise a gravitational balance point, known as L5, which would allow it to trail the Earth in its orbit around the Sun by about 150 million kilometres. From this perspective, the spacecraft would have a view of what’s happening on the surface of the Sun several days in advance of when an active area spins round towards Earth.
The mission takes its name from British Astronomer Richard Carrington who, in 1859, monitored the strongest geomagnetic storm on record.