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Contact: Athena Dinar
British Antarctic Survey

New system to forecast space weather launched

A new European Union system to forecast space weather goes live today (1 March). Led by researchers at British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the €2.54m SPACECAST project will provide frequent and reliable web-based forecasts so that satellite operators can take action to protect their satellites from space radiation damage.

Researchers from 6 European countries, working in partnership with colleagues in the USA and two European companies, use satellite data, ground-based measurements of the Earth's magnetic field, and state-of-the-art computer models to forecast space weather for the region where most satellites orbit the Earth. This is the so-called Van Allen radiation belt – a doughnut–shaped ring of charged particles, trapped within the Earth's magnetic field that encircles the planet high above the equator.

Space weather is of intense interest to the UK and US Governments*. Millions of dollars have been lost as a result of large magnetic storms in space causing satellite damage. In 2003 a large magnetic storm caused more than 47 satellites to malfunction, including the total loss of a scientific satellite valued at $640m. The largest magnetic storm ever recorded - the Carrington storm of 1859 - occurred long before society became reliant on satellites for TV, internet, navigation and telecommunications. If such a super-storm occurred again the cost could be as high as $30bn1.

Changes on the Sun trigger magnetic storms around the Earth, and during the 11-year sunspot cycle the number of moderate to large magnetic storms varies from about 15 to 60 per year or more. A new sunspot maximum is expected to increase the number of magnetic storms between 2013 and 2015. The new forecast system, which is updated every hour, will help protect satellites used for navigation, telecommunications, remote sensing and other services.

Professor Richard Horne from British Antarctic Survey, who is leading the project, said "The Sun is becoming more active again triggering more geomagnetic storms which generally increase space radiation. These changes are an important part of space weather and are a serious natural hazard. For the first time we can now forecast radiation levels for a whole range of different orbits, from geostationary to medium Earth orbit where there is a tremendous growth in the number of satellites. Nobody has done that before."

"In putting this system together we have adapted our research models for operational needs. We can forecast 1 to 3 hours ahead; longer than that and changes can happen so quickly that we lose reliability."

The forecasts are available on the internet at: and provide a risk index for satellite operators. Satellites continue to operate during space weather events, but given advance warning operators can reduce the risk of disruption by switching off non-essential systems, re-routeing signals, and by re-scheduling orbit manoeuvres and software upgrades.

One of the novel features of the forecasts is that space radiation levels are computed from the physics of wave-particle interactions. Observations at British Antarctic Survey's Halley Research Station, Antarctica, have long shown that special types of very low frequency VLF electromagnetic waves can increase as well as decrease space radiation levels2. These variations (or VLF wave measurements) are now incorporated into the forecasting models. Over the next 2 years SPACECAST will be working on the physics so that the team can improve the forecasts, extend them to the lower energy 'seed' electrons, and model solar energetic particle events.


Issued by the BAS Press Office:
Athena Dinar, Tel: +44 (0)1223 221414; mobile: 07736 921693, email:

Scientist contact details:
Prof Richard Horne, (UK), Project Coordinator, Tel: +44 (0)1223 221542; mobile: 0778 6733 667; email:
Dr Daniel Boscher, (France) Tel: +33 562 25 27 53; email:
Dr Natalia Ganushkina, (USA), Tel: +1 734 647 3108; email:
Prof Hannu Koskinen (Finland), Tel: +358 50 4155 356; email:
Prof Stefaan Poedts (Belgium), Tel: +32 16 327 003; email:
Prof Blai Sanahuja (Spain), Tel: +34 93 402 11 31; email:

Company contact details:
Dr Daniel Heynderickx, (Belgium) Tel +32 16 225 860; email:
David Pitchford, (Luxembourg) Tel +352 710 725 783; email:

Notes for editors:

SPACECAST is a major EU initiative under Framework 7, which has funding up to a total of €2.5 million. It includes researchers from the BAS (UK), University of Helsinki (Finland), the Finnish Meteorological Institute (Finland), the French Aerospace Laboratory (ONERA) (France), University of Barcelona (Spain), the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium), and, DH Consultancy (Belgium). It also includes close collaboration with 4 groups in the USA, Los Alamos National Laboratory, the University of California, Los Angeles, NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre, and the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University.

*Space Weather is a topic of special collaboration between the UK and USA following President Obama's visit to the UK in May 2011, and a priority for Europe's space situation awareness programme. SPACECAST also has strong involvement from satellite companies such as SES Global in Luxembourg, and Atrium Space Insurance in the UK who provide guidance on user needs.

Van Allen radiation belts

The Van Allen radiation belts were the foremost discovery of the space age after being detected by the first US satellite Explorer I, which was launched during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58. They are composed of energetic charged particles trapped inside the Earth's magnetic field, which surrounds the Earth like a ring doughnut. Energetic electrons in the Earth's Van Allen radiation belts occupy two distinct regions. The inner zone, which typically extends from altitudes of 200 km to 7000 km in the equatorial plane, is relatively stable. In contrast, the outer zone, which typically lies between 13,000 km and 40,000 km in the equatorial plane, is highly dynamic. The gap between the two zones, known as the slot region, is usually devoid of energetic electrons.

High energy particle radiation

High energy particle radiation can damage electronic components on satellites causing temporary loss of service, component failure and in extreme cases total satellite loss. The amount of radiation can change by up to 10,000 fold or more during magnetic storms on timescales of an hour to a few days, but the changes are very difficult to predict. Using satellite data, ground-based measurements of the Earth's magnetic field, and state-of-the-art computer models the SPACECAST project is now able to forecast electron radiation levels throughout the so-called Van Allen radiation belts where most satellites orbit the Earth.

Magnetic storms

Magnetic storms are a global disruption of the Earth's magnetic field where the field changes shape and "wobbles" for days. They are triggered by changes on the Sun. During the 11-year sunspot cycle the number of moderate to large magnetic storms varies from about 15 per year at sunspot minimum to 60 or more per year just after sunspot maximum. A new sunspot maximum is expected over the next few years but the number of magnetic storms is expected to peak between 2013 and 2015.

1 Super-storm occurred again the cost could be as high as $30bn. Odenwald, S. F., and J. L. Green (2007), Forecasting the impact of an 1859-caliber superstorm on geosynchronous Earth-orbiting satellites: Transponder resources, Space Weather, 5, S06002, doi:10.1029/2006SW000262.

2 VLF electromagnetic waves can increase as well as decrease space radiation levels. Horne, R. B., R. M. Thorne, Y. Y. Shprits, N. P. Meredith, S. A. Glauert, A. J. Smith, S. G. Kanekal, D. N. Baker, M. J. Engebretson, J. L. Posch, M. Spasojevic, U. S. Inan, J. S. Pickett, and P. M. E. Decreau (2005), Wave acceleration of electrons in the van Allen radiation belts, Nature, 437, (7056), 227-230, doi:10.1038/nature03939.

British Antarctic Survey (BAS), a component of the Natural Environment Research Council, delivers world-leading interdisciplinary research in the Polar Regions. Its skilled science and support staff based in Cambridge, Antarctica and the Arctic, work together to deliver research that underpins a productive economy and contributes to a sustainable world. Its numerous national and international collaborations, leadership role in Antarctic affairs and excellent infrastructure help ensure that the UK maintains a world leading position. BAS has over 450 staff and operates five research stations, two Royal Research Ships and five aircraft in and around Antarctica.

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