UCL Mathematical & Physical Sciences


New UK and USA ‘space weather’ service using UCL tech

6 June 2019

UCL is taking the lead on developing a new instrument for use on space weather monitoring spacecraft to observe the solar wind, in order to protect astronauts, satellites and ground infrastructure.

Lagrange mission

The £7 million (€8 million) UK Space Agency funding for the UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory was announced today as the UK and USA confirm they will be working together to establish an enhanced space weather forecasting system.

Extreme events can be hazardous to astronauts and impact electrical infrastructure, telecommunications systems, aviation and satellite navigation. Due to the potential for disruption and impact on industry, space weather appears on the UK National Risk Register.

The Sun is always emitting magnetised plasma called the ‘solar wind’. While conditions are often benign, strong solar wind can produce disruptive space weather by disturbing the Earth’s magnetic field.

More severe space weather can occur when the Sun occasionally discharges large bubbles of magnetised plasma known as coronal mass ejections.

Thanks to funding from the UK Space Agency, allocated through the European Space Agency (ESA), scientists and engineers at UCL MSSL will develop a cutting edge ‘plasma analyser’ which, when placed in deep space, will give early warning of imminent, damaging space weather.

Professor Andrew Fazakerley, Director of the UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory, said: “UCL has many years of research experience in the science of space weather and in building instruments with which to study it, most recently through roles in providing both solar and space plasma instruments for ESA’s upcoming Solar Orbiter mission.

“I am very pleased that UCL will be able to build on that experience to provide a solar wind plasma analyser designed to meet the special requirements of dedicated operational space weather monitoring missions.”

The UK Space Agency and ESA will collaborate closely on science, space and ground systems technology with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the United States.

In the next five years, NOAA and ESA with support from the UK are planning to launch two complementary solar monitoring satellites.

The UCL-developed ‘plasma analyser’ will fly on ESA’s L5 space weather monitoring mission to observe solar wind, and the UK Space Agency is working cooperatively with ESA and the United States’ NOAA on their complementary L1 space weather monitoring spacecraft.

The solar wind data generated by this instrument, and others at L1, are vital to enable the Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre to issue timely space weather alerts and warnings to assist Critical National Infrastructure operators to effectively mitigate the risk posed by space weather.

Dr Graham Turnock, CEO UK Space Agency said: “Space weather has the potential to cause severe disruption to critical satellite and ground-based infrastructure, so it’s essential that we take steps to mitigate this threat through improving our ability to forecast extreme solar activity.

“The space weather mission projects our global influence by partnering with Europe and the USA, driving and protecting future UK knowledge and prosperity, and keeping Britain safe and secure from potential impacts of space weather.”




    Media contact

    Bex Caygill

    Tel: +44 (0)20 3108 3846

    Email: r.caygill [at] ucl.ac.uk