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ESA unveils partners for developing space weather early warning system

The European Space Agency (ESA) has unveiled the four organizations it will be partnering with to develop an early warning system to help reduce the global risk of damage caused by space weather.

The new mission aims to put a spacecraft at a fixed point away from the line between the sun and the Earth, known as the 5th Lagrange point, so it can monitor for space weather events and provide early warnings.

Space weather occurs when the sun ejects material that can be highly charged, superheated and hazardous to man-made infrastructure and human life in space.

Airbus UK will lead on developing the overall mission, with the focus on mission operations, the spacecraft platform, and how this interfaces with the instruments. STFC RAL Space will lead the development of instruments to observe the sun and heliosphere. UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory will lead the development of instruments to make measurements of the solar wind. OHB, from Germany, will lead the fourth consortium, aiming to develop a competing platform, with all proposals to be assessed by ESA.

Matt Perren, head of future projects at Airbus UK, said, “A mission to the 5th Lagrange point will significantly enhance our capability to protect our planet against space hazards. We are excited to make available Airbus’s experience as leader of cutting-edge solar observation and Lagrangian missions to support ESA and the UK Space Agency in strengthening the resilience of our valuable assets in space and on Earth.”

Dr Richard Cole, who will be managing the study contract at UCL, said, “UCL has a long track-record in the science of space weather and in building instruments to investigate it. I am very pleased that UCL is able to lead a team of European institutes in developing this important mission that will help us develop an early warning system for space weather and better predict its harmful effects on both ground- and space-based technologies – something we’ve never been able to achieve before.”

Dr Jackie Davies, consortium lead for STFC’s RAL Space, said, “This mission is a fantastic opportunity to apply the extensive scientific and space instrument expertise and heritage here in STFC RAL Space to a growing societal problem. We have been advocates for such a space weather mission over many years, based on RAL Space’s leadership of the pioneering Heliospheric Imager instruments on NASA’s flagship STEREO mission. It is extremely satisfying to achieve this goal and we are now looking forward to the challenge of leading a multi-instrument, multi-national instrumentation development program.”

Rare extreme space weather could disrupt modern technology by causing geomagnetic storms affecting satellite navigation, shortwave communications and power grids. A recent ESA study estimated the potential socio-economic impact in Europe from a single, extreme space weather event could reach €15bn

(US$18.6bn). Much of this disruption could be avoided through accurate forecasting. ESA is planning to select a final design for the spacecraft and its instruments based on the results of these studies, which are due in approximately 18 months. - February 2018

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