A devastating solar storm which could wipe out communications on Earth and fry power grids is a matter of ‘when, not if’ the head of the Met Office’s Space Weather Monitoring centre has warned.
Extreme space weather has already caused widespread disruption, with a geomagnetic storm leaving six million people without power in 1989 while Apollo astronauts narrowly missed being exposed to deadly radiation in 1972 and solar flares in 2003 forced the crew of the International Space Station to take cover.
The largest solar storm ever recorded, The Carrington Event in 1859, knocked out Telegraph systems and even set fire to paper in offices.
To help forecast such devastating phenomena the European Space Agency is launching the Solar Orbiter probe in 2020 to monitor the Sun, and yesterday unveiled the spacecraft at Airbus ahead of a year of testing in Germany.
Catherine Burnett, head of the Met Office’s Space Weather Monitoring Unit said: “Solar Orbiter is a research mission which in the long term will to understand much more about the Sun and why it behaves as it does, so in the future it should help us spot disrupting events so we can prepare for them.
“The threat of space weather to national infrastructure, UK industry and the wider public is such that it is now part of the Government National Risk Register and there is a need for forecasting to try to mitigate that risk.
“We try to advise when space weather will have an impact on technology, so we’re looking for solar flares which can knock out high frequency telecommunications, coronal mass ejections which have the potential to take out our power grids and solar radiation which impact satellite communications systems and GPS.
“We think that the big solar incidents, like the Carrington Event, happen between 1 in 100 or 1 in 200 years so it is a case of ‘when not if’ we have one.”
Solar Orbiter will provide close-up views of the Sun’s polar regions, tracking features such as solar storms and the solar wind which causes Earth’s atmosphere to light up as the Aurora or Northern Lights. It will also help scientists understand how dynamo processes within the star the Sun's magnetic field.
The north and south poles of the Sun ‘flipped’ in 2013 and Solar Orbiter will also explore the phenomenon.
And it will examine how the Sun creates and controls the heliosphere, the vast bubble of charged particles blown by the solar wind in which Earth sits.
The spacecraft has been built in Britain at Airbus in Stevenage, Hertfordshire and the UK Space Agency has funded teams from University College London, Imperial College London and the RALSpace to design and build three out of the ten instruments on board.
It is due to lift off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a Nasa Atlas rocket in 2020 and will be linking up with Nasa’s Parker Solar Probe will travel through the Sun’s atmosphere, while Solar Orbiter will observe the surface.
UK Space Agency Head of Science Chris Lee said: “This is an exciting time for solar science. UK research and engineering teams are at the heart of this mission which will help us understand more about our star – the Sun – and its effects on us all here on Earth.”