Space weather impacts satellites, navigation and communications

April 14th, 2014, Published in Articles: PositionIT


Aviation professionals and private companies attended the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) Space Science division’s first space weather information day, held in Pretoria on 8 April 2014. The day was aimed at raising general public awareness of space weather and its relevance, and of the services offered by the division’s space weather monitoring programme.

(From right to left) Hannes Coetzee from GEW, the DST’s Mmboneni Muofhe, and SANSA’s MD Dr. Lee-Anne McKinnell and CEO Dr. Sandile Malinga.

(From right to left) Hannes Coetzee (GEW),  Mmboneni Muofhe (Department of Science and Technology), and Dr. Lee-Anne McKinnell and Dr. Sandile Malinga (SANSA).

The space weather programme has been in operation for the last four years, after having started off as a magnetic observatory. SANSA’s  Dr. Lee-Anne McKinnell, introduced space weather as the physical processes originating from the sun in the forms of solar flares of electromagnetic radiation, and solar energetic particles blasted by coronal mass ejections. As it is an electrical phenomenon, space weather has a direct impact on satellite communication, airline communication and navigation systems, and results in increased levels of radiation and other signal disruptions. In severe cases, it can even affect undersea cables and oil pipelines.

Although space weather has always existed, it is becoming increasingly relevant as our reliance on technology and electronics increases. As recently as 2003, when the last major solar maximum occurred, humans were not as reliant on technology as they are now. The prediction of space weather storms is therefore important in limiting damages, be it through rerouting communications, switching off equipment, or other methods. The disruption of a bank’s communication system is a good example of the vast impact of such storms, as it interlinks with many other aspects of our lives. It is worth noting that not all space weather conditions are geo-affective (affecting earth), and the ones that are generally affect higher latitude locations (like Canada) more than mid-latitude places like South Africa.

Satellites are particularly vulnerable to solar energetic particles blasted by coronal mass ejections from the sun. [Image courtesy of SANSA]

Satellites are particularly vulnerable to solar energetic particles blasted by coronal mass ejections from the sun. [Image courtesy of SANSA]

The Space Weather Centre, operated by SANSA, offers various monitoring products and services, including a 24/7 call system, alert and warning systems, and interpretation of data to obtain useful information. Their clients include the military (specifically for communications) and aviation partners. Although SANSA doesn’t have it own satellites, it makes use of data from the international community along with their own ground data and measurements. The centre also works alongside electronics, physics and mathematics departments of various universities in South Africa. Questions raised during the question and answer session were mostly focused on progress in aviation applications, as well as impacts on lower frequency equipment and systems such as power grids.

Hannes Coetzee from GEW, a government supplier of warfare equipment such as monitoring and interception systems, showed practical examples of how space weather information can be used in the field, and how it affects the working and prediction of successful radio communications. SANSA’s CEO Dr. Sandile Malinga opened the event with an overview of the organisation’s projects and goals. He stressed the need and importance of a space programme for economic, scientific and technological growth through spin-offs that have applications in fields ranging from urban and rural planning to environmental monitoring and disaster management. Department of Science and Technology deputy director general Mmboneni Muofhe added to that the importance of skills development of space programmes, but also stated that science has to be relevant and beneficial in addressing challenges to be considered for funding.

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