Service set to provide online space weather forecasts

Commercial and independent satellite operators will soon have access to online space weather forecasts based on technology developed by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).  

The SPACECAST service, funded by the EU, will provide around three hours’ prior warning of potentially damaging electrical events, in which time operators can take actions such as re-scheduling orbits and powering down certain systems.

Essentially, SPACECAST aims to characterise the two doughnut-shaped regions of energetic electrons, trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field — known as the Van Allen electron radiation belts.

‘The issue is, it’s not static, it’s not constant, the number of these particles is always going up and down, it’s varying all the time, particularly when we have large geomagnetic storms that are caused by variations in the Sun,’ project lead Prof Richard Horne of BAC told The Engineer.

‘The particles are so energetic they can penetrate the skin of a satellite and they can accumulate in some of the dielectric materials [such as] insulators in cables and circuit boards and components, causing them to charge up and set off a satellite anomaly.’

The forecasting draws on three primary sources of raw data: NASA’s advanced composition explorer (ACE) satellite; the geostationary operational environmental satellites (GOES) operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Colorado; and ground measurements made at the Antarctic.  

‘We’ve been working for many years on the idea that the electrons inside the Earth’s magnetic field are accelerated up to very high energies by special types of very low-frequency electromagnetic waves, generated naturally inside the Earth’s magnetic field. Some of them leak out and actually get down to the ground into the Antarctic and we can pick them up at our research station,’ Horne said.

‘What’s really new about what we’re doing here, is we’ve developed some computer models where we’ve incorporated the physics of these wave particle attractions, and combined it with the other processes.’ 

The result is that, unlike existing forecasts currently available, SPACECAST can provide information on radiation levels for a whole range of different orbits, from geostationary to medium Earth orbit, where there is a growth in the number of satellites.

Forecasts will be accurate to between one and three hours ahead and be updated every hour. The rolling out of the system coincides with a new peak in solar activity predicted between 2013 and 2015, and for Galileo — the new European constellation of 30 radio-navigation satellites.