Europe

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Call for solar superstorm board

Published 07/02/2013|00:14

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Scientists have warned Britain needs to prepare for a solar superstorm

A new quango is needed to help Britain brace itself against a once-in-a-century "solar superstorm", experts said.

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Setting up a UK Space Weather Board is the key recommendation made to the Government in a report from the Royal Academy of Engineering. The Board would lead and supervise government strategy for coping with a massive radiation blast from the Sun that could trigger black-outs, knock out one in 10 satellites, and disrupt aircraft and shipping navigation.

Statistically, a solar superstorm is likely to occur every one to 200 years. Although solar weather events happen on a regular basis, the Earth has not experienced a superstorm since the start of the space age. The last true superstorm, known as the "Carrington event" occurred in 1859.

On that occasion, Earth was hit by a tidal wave of energetic particles following a large solar flare. Induced currents caused by the blast sent sparks flying from telegraph pylons and caused fires. But at that time there were no satellites in orbit or sensitive microchips in the path of the particles.

Experts now warn that another solar superstorm on the scale of the Carrington event is "inevitable" and Britain should be prepared.

Professor Paul Cannon, who chaired the Academy's working group on extreme solar weather, said: "The two challenges for government are the wide spectrum of technologies affected and the emergence of unexpected vulnerabilities as technology evolves. The Academy recommends that government sets up a Space Weather Board to oversee these issues across government departments."

Around one in 10 orbiting satellites could be knocked out for days during a superstorm event, said the report. Those that keep operating would be aged "enormously", making it necessary for many to be replaced.

GPS signals would be interrupted one to three days after the storm hit as satellite transmissions to the ground are disrupted. As a result, sat-nav systems would be rendered inoperable. Energetic particles penetrating lower levels of the atmosphere could also interfere with aircraft electronics.

Space engineer Keith Ryden, from the University of Surrey, another member of the working group, said: "The most likely scenario is that data elements get corrupted. It's possible that individual chips could fail. The systems are designed to cope with a certain amount of failure. What would be of concern is if we had multiple failures for the pilot to deal with so he becomes overloaded."

But he added: "We're not talking about aircraft dropping out of the sky."

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