Early warning space weather satellite Vigil to be built in the UK

A satellite that will provide an early warning system for potentially dangerous space weather will be built in the UK.

Airbus has been selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) to design and build the space weather forecasting satellite, Vigil.

The spacecraft will give vital extra warning about incoming solar storms and coronal mass ejections which can potentially disrupt satellites in orbit and electronic and power distribution systems on Earth.

Data from Vigil could provide notice of four to five days of solar winds streaming toward Earth.

Airbus lead systems engineer, Dr Michelle Sprake, told the PA news agency that spacecraft will be able to watch as coronal mass ejections form on the surface of the sun before they have even been emitted.

She added that it will also allow forecasters to “look at these events building up from our vantage point and potentially get about four or five days worth of warning because we’ll be able to view parts of the sun that we can’t normally see from Earth”.

Dr Sprake continued: “We’ll be able to see those events forming before they’ve rotated all the way around and will line up with the Earth.

“So the idea is to get better predictive capability and to also do some, what they call, nowcasting.”

Patrick Wood, Head of Space Systems UK, Airbus Defence and Space, said: “Vigil is one of the most exciting and important space missions that will not only improve our understanding of the Sun’s behaviour but, crucially, provide us with earlier warning and greater precision about potentially damaging solar weather.

“Space weather forecasters will be able to see what is coming from the Sun and provide more accurate alerts.”

Vigil will be positioned at Lagrange point L5 on the same orbit as the Earth, 93 million miles (150 million kilometres) behind the planet as it orbits the Sun.

From its position, Vigil will complement other satellites monitoring the Sun from closer to the Earth.

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.

In 1989, a major geomagnetic storm struck Earth and caused a nine-hour outage of electricity transmission across Quebec.

Advance warning of such events 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.

The spacecraft, which will be built in the UK, will include instruments developed by the US Naval Research Laboratory, Florence-based Leonardo SpA, Germany’s Max Planck Institute, Mullard Space Science Laboratory in London and Imperial College London.

Nasa is providing Vigil’s sixth instrument, an extreme ultraviolet imager.

Due to be launched in 2031, Vigil will be the first ESA spacecraft to be positioned at L5 and is designed to operate in orbit for more than 7.5 years.

Andrew Griffith, Minister for Space 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 and I congratulate Airbus here in the UK on taking the lead in this important mission.”

Josef Aschbacher, ESA director general, said: “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.

“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.”