ESA’s space weather expert, Juha-Pekka Luntama, took to the stage at this year’s New Scientist Live to illustrate the hazards that come from our star and the agency’s plan to protect infrastructure on Earth and in space.
Space weather refers to the environmental conditions in space as influenced by solar activity. Besides emitting a continuous stream of electrically charged atomic particles, the Sun periodically sneezes out billions of tonnes of material threaded with magnetic fields in colossal-scale ‘coronal mass ejections’ — immense clouds of matter.
“People do not realise just how reliant humanity is on satellite technology, from mobile phone communication and GPS, to navigation systems, power grids and weather services. These tools that are so fundamental to our way of life are vulnerable to even medium-sized outbursts from our raging star.” explains Juha-Pekka.
ESA and European industry are currently preparing for the Lagrange mission, the first-ever satellite placed onto the gravitational plateau 150 million km behind Earth, known as L5. From there it has a constant view of the side of our star that we cannot see from Earth. This allows the spacecraft to supply vital data on the Sun’s behaviour before it affects us, feeding advanced warnings into Europe's Space Weather services network that will ultimately allow economically vital infrastructure to be protected.
In the event of extreme solar weather, these warnings will ensure astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) have time to get to safety, and that power grid operators can take necessary measures to protect their networks and ensure continued power delivery. Vitally, these warnings will also provide satellite operators with the time to take defensive measures needed to protect space infrastructure.
Juha-Pekka adds, "The Lagrange mission is the first of its kind, and as technology develops, the warnings and alerts it will enable are becoming more necessary every day."
For more information on the Lagrange mission, click here.