£20 million project to tackle space weather
24 Sep 2019
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£20million of funding to upgrade the UK’s resilience to space weather events has been announced today by the Prime Minister at the UN General Assembly.

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​​​​​​​​​British ESA astronaut Tim Peake captured this image of the aurora borealis which are caused as charged particles stream inwards from the Solar System, colliding and interacting with particles at the outer edges of our atmosphere.

Credit: ESA/NASA

The new package of space funding, under the UK Research and Innovation's Strategic Priorities Fund, will improve our ability to forecast solar activity that can disrupt national infrastructures including satellite communications and the National Grid.

The funding will go to research projects which will directly help improve the ability of the Met Office to predict space weather events so as to reduce their potential impact. ​

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 announced today will help turn Britain's pioneering research into practical solutions that will protect against any adverse disruption caused by cosmic chaos."

SWIMMR (Space Weather Instrumentation, Measurement, Modelling and Risk) is a £20 million, four-year programme that will look to improve the UK's capabilities for space weather monitoring and prediction. There will be an emphasis on space radiation, which can affect aircraft systems, changes in the upper atmosphere, affecting communications, and surges in the current in power grids and other ground-level systems. These are significant risks to infrastructures we rely on in daily life and are recorded in the UK's National Risk Register.

Project lead Professor Ian McCrea, Head of Space Physics and Operations Division at RAL Space, said: “I am delighted by this announcement and the opportunities it will provide for the space weather research community in the UK.  We have a world-class academic community in this field, together with an increasingly effective operational capability for monitoring and prediction, which has been developed at the Met Office. 

“This funding allows us more effectively to connect the two, which has been our aspiration for several years.  The resulting new capabilities will not only benefit the UK, but will further improve our position as an international leader and key contributor to the prediction and mitigation of this global hazard."

The project brings together researchers funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), with teams at the Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre (MOSWOC) – supported by the Department for Business, Education and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Defence. STFC's RAL Space department already works alongside MOSWOC to conduct research and provide instruments to study the Sun from space, including the development of a proposed European Space Agency space weather monitoring mission.

This expertise will be used to direct funding to enable the research community to provide targeted improvements to the supply of data and models used by MOSWOC to forecast space weather events. These improved forecasts will help UK industry to respond more quickly to events and reduce the potential impact on businesses and society. As well as underpinning research and modelling, the programme includes the development of new instruments and techniques to improve the resilience of satellites in orbit which are most vulnerable to the effects of space weather.

Science Minister Chris Skidmore said:

"Our space sector is incredibly strong and productive, with innovative firms and the UK’s world-class university researchers playing a leading role in the new space age.

A truly strategic approach to space is needed now more than ever and we must develop our national space capabilities, while strengthening our international partnerships, to take full advantage of opportunities like satellite launch from the UK and defend against serious threats such as space weather."
It was also an​nounced that three potential horizontal spaceports in England, Scotland and Wales will receive £1.3million support. The full announcement is available here​.
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