SANSA to play major role at increasing aviation safety

January 18th, 2019, Published in Articles: EngineerIT

With the appointment as designated regional provider of space weather information by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) will play a major role in increasing safety in the African airspace. Aircraft flying in the continent’s airspace will rely on SANSA for the space weather component of their flight plan.

Space weather event such solar flares may create disturbance on high frequency (HF) and satellite communications, which would have side effects on Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC), cause onboard system failure, disrupt the Global Navigation Satellite System and destabilise other navigation aids.

Recognising the need to mitigate space weather impacts on aviation, ICAO passed a recommendation in 2014 regarding the development of space weather information and its integration into international air navigation systems. ICAO now requires this crucial information to be included in the flight plans of all aircraft.

One of the important pieces of navigation information aircraft navigators require is the magnetic declination which is the difference between the geographic North and the magnetic North. Before incorporation of the Hermanus Magnetic observatory into SANSA, the observatory was already providing regular details of the magnetic declination to ensure that aircraft compasses could be calibrated. Over the years the space weather services have expanded to include more data on solar activity and the status of the ionosphere.

Fig. 1: Supercomputer models of Earth’s magnetic field. On the left is a normal dipolar magnetic field, typical of the long years between polarity reversals. On the right is the sort of complicated magnetic field Earth has during the upheaval of a reversal [NASA].

The Hermanus facility was recently extended and is now in the position to issue vital early warnings and forecasts on space weather conditions. The upgraded centre was unveiled by the Minister of Science and Technology, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, on 20 April 2018, and processes are currently under way to secure additional funding to further capacitate the centre.

SANSA will partner with one of the ICAO’s, a consortium of nine European countries, three global space weather centres, PECASUS, the Pan-European Consortium for Aviation Space Weather User Services, to provide ICAO with space weather information for the African region.

The application of space science and technology for the good of the nation is one of the major objectives of South Africa’s National Space Policy and National Space Strategy, and space weather information has both national and international benefits. South Africa’s designation as a regional space weather information provider will grow the science, engineering, technology and innovation sector, offering opportunities to develop scarce skills and increase national research output, while ensuring that usable products are generated.

While South Africa is the only African country with operational space weather capabilities, it will engage with other countries on the continent on data sharing, infrastructure hosting, training, product development, and research collaboration opportunities.

Polar shift 

Fig. 2: The new space weather centre at SANSA in Hermanus.

Over the past few years the Earth’s magnetic pole has shifted at an accelerated rate. New research conducted by the European Space Agency and its three-satellite mission called SWARM, shows that the Earth’s magnetic north pole is moving south towards Siberia.

The satellites were launched for the purpose of investigating the Earth’s magnetic fields. The fields have been found to act as a shield against space and solar radiation, and also to help moderate the Earth’s climate.

The shift in acceleration of the Earth’s magnetic poles originates from the planet’s core. Large areas of the Western Hemisphere have seen decreased power in the magnetic field while a large area in the southern Indian Ocean has seen an increase in the field’s power. Scientists will be able to continue analysing data from the SWARM satellites over the next few months to determine if these findings match up with other signal orientations from the rest of the Earth layers such as the ionosphere, mantle, crust, oceans and magnetosphere.

On a science fiction note, an interesting read is “Polar Shift” by Clive Cussler. “Sixty years ago, a Hungarian scientist discovered how to artificially trigger a polar shift, but time has forgotten his work – until now. Austin, Zavala and the rest of the NUMA team must find out who has access to this powerful technology before the Earth is made to pay.”

A real polar shift may be many thousands of years away, but it could be human-triggered with horrific aftermaths. Well, if you believe in science fiction stories!

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