Dangerous space weather early warning satellite to be built in UK

A solar flare on the Sun and an eruption of solar material shooting through its atmosphere
The spacecraft will give vital extra warning about incoming solar storms and coronal mass ejections - Nasa/Goddard/SDO/PA

Dangerous space weather which could fry power grids, wipe out telecommunications systems and ground flights will be monitored by a new British-built satellite which gives a side-on view of the Sun.

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Vigil satellite will be positioned 60 degrees to the Sun to provide an early warning of dangerous solar storms before they can be seen from the ground.

The Sun spins on its axis about once every 27 days, meaning that the Vigil could spot potential problems four or five days before the star turns to face the Earth. Currently warnings come just a few hours before the solar wind hits.

Earlier in May 2024, Starlink suffered a degraded surface following the biggest geomagnetic storm because of solar activity in two decades, causing the Northern Lights to be seen across Britain.

On Wednesday it was announced that the spacecraft will be built at Airbus in Stevenage.

Andrew Griffith, the space minister at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, said: “Space weather generates stunning phenomena like the recent displays of the Northern Lights over our skies. But it also presents a real risk to our way of life which is increasingly dependent on space and satellite services.

“The Vigil mission will transform our understanding of the impact of potentially dangerous solar events.”

An artist's impression of the space weather forecasting satellite Vigil
An artist's impression of the space weather forecasting satellite Vigil, which could provide notice of four to five days of solar winds streaming toward Earth - Airbus/PA

Usually the Earth is protected by its magnetic field. Even when solar storms penetrate they are generally only responsible for the spectacular auroras seen at the North and South poles.

It is the more violent outbursts that Vigil will be looking for, including sun spots. These are dark patches on the surface which erupt with tens of millions of times more energy than volcanoes on Earth, shooting radio, gamma and X-rays out into space.

It will also be watching for coronal mass ejections – giant explosions which can shoot billions of tonnes of plasma in magnetic clouds towards the Earth at 1,800 miles per second.

Both phenomena can accelerate particles in the solar wind to near the speed of light, and when plasma, radiation and particles collide with Earth they can prove devastating.

Dr Michelle Sprake, of Airbus, said: “Among the most potentially damaging events are coronal mass ejections (CMEs) from the Sun, consisting of a magnetised plasma containing protons, electrons and other charged particles.

“These cause the Northern Lights displays we have been seeing the past few weeks but very large events can severely disrupt our infrastructure.

“Advance warning of incoming CMEs will enable power companies and authorities to shut down systems temporarily to protect them from power surges and ensure they can be powered up quickly after the danger has passed. This will avoid longer power outages and major damage to electronic systems. Satellites can also be put into a ‘safe mode’ to protect them from potential damage while the CME is passing, and aircraft re-routed.”

A solar flare in an image captured by Nasa's Solar Dynamics Observatory
Solar events can potentially disrupt satellites in orbit and electronic and power distribution systems on Earth - NASA/SDO

The most severe incident, known as the Carrington Event, happened in 1859, shorting telegraph circuits, starting fires and causing the Northern Lights to dance in the sky as far south as Hawaii.

Such an event is estimated to happen every 100 years so the planet is already overdue for such a catastrophe.‌

If it happened today researchers estimate there is a 71 per cent chance the British power grid would be affected while mobile phone reception could die and airlines would be grounded without GPS.

In 1989 a major geomagnetic storm caused a nine-hour outage of electricity transmission across Quebec while in 2003 Sweden lost power for around one hour.‌

The satellite, which is due to launch in 2031, will be positioned about 93 million miles from the Sun at a point called Lagrange 5.

Lagrange points are areas of space where the gravitational forces of bodies cancel each other out, essentially creating a parking spot.‌

“Vigil will be Europe’s first 24/7 operational space weather satellite, providing valuable time to protect critical infrastructure such as power grids or mobile communication networks on Earth as well as valuable satellites in Earth orbit, including the International Space Station ISS,” said Josef Aschbacher, ESA director general.

“Vigil will drastically improve both the lead time of space weather warnings as well as their level of detail from its unique vantage point in deep space,” he added.