SA grows capacity in space weather monitoring for global aviation

July 13th, 2019, Published in Articles: PositionIT

South Africa is looking to take on a leading role in the international space weather monitoring community, as it moves to become a key provider of space weather information to the global aviation sector for the African region.

Based in Hermanus in the Western Cape, the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) facility is the only such centre on the continent, and has been designated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as one of two regional centres around the world that will monitor space weather for the global aviation sector, providing crucial safety-related services such as solar storm forecasts and warnings.

Dr Phil Mjwara, Director-General of the Department of Science and Technology, visiting the Space Weather Regional Warning Centre for Africa.

This designation followed an extensive assessment process involving three global centres (those of the USA, a pan-European consortium, and an Australia, Canada, France and Japan consortium) and two regional centres (the South African centre and a joint Russia-China centre).

South Africa’s space weather centre now has three years in which to meet the ICAO’s requirements for the country to maintain its new designation. The global centres are already delivering on the ICAO requirements, while the regional centres have until 2022 to build the needed capacity.

Space weather events are capable of seriously disrupting modern technologies such as satellites, GPS, power grids, and navigation and communication systems. High-frequency radio communication infrastructure, as well as ground and air-based navigation systems, can be disabled or knocked out entirely by solar storms, while radiation exposure poses a hazard for airline crew and passengers, especially during long-haul flights.

To mitigate the risks to aircraft and airports, the ICAO has recommended that the aviation sector familiarise itself with the potential impacts of space weather events, and ensure that space weather information forms part of all flight plans in the near future. The organisation has made it a regulation that this information be filtered down to aircraft crew and cabin members.

As South Africa prepares to meet the ICAO requirements, plans are under discussion to establish a 24/7 operation, expand the physical space in which the space weather centre currently operates, and train more people – in particular space weather forecasters. As space weather forecasting is a skill learned on the job, SANSA will be implementing a training programme and rolling out a quality management system.

SANSA has also partnered with the Pan-European Consortium for Aviation Space weather User Services (PECASUS), a nine-country collaboration, to provide the ICAO with space weather information for the African region. This collaboration will connect the South African space industry to international models and expertise.

Within the country, SANSA is working closely with the Air Traffic Aviation Service, the South African Weather Service, the Civil Aviation Authority and other partners to implement the ICAO recommendations for Africa’s aviation sector.

Contact Catherine Webster, SANSA, cwebster@sansa.org

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