The first phase of design work for the European Space Agency’s Lagrange spacecraft has been completed by four multinational teams, including one led by UCL space scientists.
This ESA mission, together with a complementary US mission, will form the major elements of an early warning system for severe space weather, which can be hazardous to critical infrastructure on Earth and human life in space.
It will be the first deep space mission where the priority is to deliver critical services, with excellent science as a by-product, and its urgent need has been highlighted in a report today by the European Space Science Committee (ESSC).
The proposed mission will be put to ESA member states in November at the Council of Ministers meeting, Space19+, and if funded it is targeted for launch in 2025.
The ESSC, an Expert Board on Space Sciences hosted by the European Science Foundation (ESF), today presented its recommendations on how ESA, the European Union (EU) and their respective member states can face space weather risks.
The ESSC report identifies six activities, which it says need urgent coordination between both member states as well as European bodies and organisations to strengthen knowledge and preparedness against the risks of space weather.
Actions include supporting the next generation of space missions and the maintenance and augmentation of ground-based infrastructure and assessment of risks at national, regional and European levels.
Dr Richard Cole (UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory), said: "We welcome the findings of the ESSC report which highlights the urgent need for a consolidated and coordinated approach to face the risks posed by space weather as well as the importance of ongoing global efforts to mitigate the impacts of space weather."
"Using current space-based monitors, our current warning time is less than an hour. With Lagrange, we can increase that lead time to a few days, which gives everyone a lot more time to respond to potential space weather threats," added Dr Jonny Rae (UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory)
The ESA mission will go to the Lagrange Point L5 from where it can observe the Sun and the space in between the Sun and Earth. This unique vantage point will allow it to detect events developing on the Sun before they become visible from the Earth, and to observe solar wind disturbances on their way to the Earth. The complementary US mission will travel to a location known as Lagrange point L1 lying between Sun and Earth from where it can monitor the Sun and measure Earth-directed solar wind.
When taken together, the L1 and L5 missions will provide a 3D view that will greatly increase the accuracy of space weather forecasts.
The UK plays a major role in Lagrange. Airbus Defence and Space are developing the overall L5 mission concept. STFC RAL Space lead a team developing optical instruments to observe the sun and inner heliosphere. The UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory leads a team developing instruments to measure the solar wind, from Imperial College (UK), Paul Scherrer Insitute (Switzerland), IWF/OAW (Austria), Kiel University (Germany), IAU/CAS (Czech Republic), and ISAWARE (Finland) .
Professor Andrew Fazakerley, Director of the UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory, said: "UCL has many years of research experience in the science of space weather and in building instruments with which to study it, including providing both solar and space plasma instruments for ESA’s upcoming Solar Orbiter mission due to launch in 2020.
"We are fortunate to be leading a very talented team of European institutes in developing one of two suites of instruments to support the ESA Lagrange mission, which, when placed in deep space, will give early warning of imminent, damaging space weather."
Space weather appears on the National Risk Register due to the damage that extreme events may cause to satellites, power distribution networks, air transportation, satellite navigation, telecommunications links and mobile phone networks. The worst impacts can be avoided with sufficient warning, which the Lagrange mission will enable.
Operational space weather forecasts for the UK are currently carried out by the Met Office. Mark Gibbs, Met Office Head of Space Weather, commented: "The Lagrange mission is extremely important in ensuring we maintain and develop our operational space weather services to help protect critical national infrastructure from the effects of space weather."
Last month the UK government awarded £20 million funding into research to improve forecasts, identify vulnerabilities and better prepare our infrastructure to cope with extreme space weather.
Commenting on this announcement, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: "From solar flares to magnetic storms, space weather can have a massive impact on mobile phones, transport, GPS signals and the electricity networks we rely on every day at home.
"The funding... will help turn Britain’s pioneering research into practical solutions that will protect against any adverse disruption caused by cosmic chaos."
The UK’s leading role in ESA helps to develop national space capabilities and foster international collaboration, inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers and creating jobs and economic growth.
The commitments the UK will make in November are a part of the Government’s ambition to increase research and development spending to 2.4% of UK GDP by 2027, and our efforts to play a leading role in the new space age.