Why invest in monitoring the Sun?

To find out why the UK is investing in monitoring the Sun's activity
20 January 2014

Interview with 

David Willetts, UK Science Minister, Lucie Green, University College London


Just before Christmas, the UK's national weather-forecasting service, the Met Office, The Sun in 3D Viewed through STEREOannounced that it would begin monitoring the Sun's activity, to advise space agencies and power distribution companies about the hazards that its radiation might pose.

To find out why the UK is investing in this technology, Chris Smith was joined by David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, and also by Lucie Green from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory of University College London.

Chris - David, first of all, why are you doing this and why are you doing it now?

David - We're doing it because when we look at the kind of strategic threat to the functioning of our national infrastructure, we've got space weather now quite high up on the list as something which is potentially disruptive. So, it would be a great advantage if we were better able to forecast it. Secondly of course, this is just another great example of British science. We have experts who are very good at monitoring solar activity. We are backing projects like solar orbiter, aimed at understanding the activities of the sun better and given that we've got scientists working on this, it's right that we should then harness their researches for better space weather forecasting.

Chris - How big is that hazard?

David - Well, we reckon that as you know, space weather solar activity seems to come in cycles of 11 or 12 years. The experts talk about the Carrington event back in 1859. It was the first great measurement of this activity incidentally from Kew, near where I am in London at the moment, and it does look as if when you have these peaks of solar activity, it can be disruptive in several ways. It can disrupt electricity supplies. It can disrupt the grid. Indeed, two of the most significant power outages in the western world in Quebec in 1989 and in Sweden in 2003 were linked to high levels of solar activity. So, that's an issue and it's why it's important for our electricity grid and infrastructure. And then secondly, satellites. Of course, we're increasingly dependent on satellites. When I talked to the satellite operators, they don't say that necessarily, you'd suddenly have your satellites knocked out. You might want to shut them down for a time and even shutting down a satellite before you - and then having to turn it back on - could interrupt services that we are all used to, delivered via satellites. So, there are reasons why having better information that one of these peaks of solar activity is coming would be of great benefit for us.

Chris - Lucie, can you tell us a bit about what causes the sorts of peaks that David's referring to?

Lucie - So, the peaks in solar activity. In terms of the activity that the sun produces, you've got 4 different types. You've got solar wind which can blow very, very strong, be very gusty and have a strong impact on the Earth's magnetic field and then with a knock-on consequences as David has already been saying about. You have solar flares which are bursts of intense radiation that come towards the Earth, coronal mass ejections which are these eruptions of plasma and magnetic field and also, energetic particle events. All of these four kinds of activity, vary over roughly an 11-year cycle which we call the solar activity cycle. They ebb and flow with that. At the moment, we are at solar maximum.

Chris - But David, the cynic in me is saying, we're still here. There are 7 billion people on Earth. The Earth hasn't melted down yet, but there must've been many, many of these such events in the past. Why do we need this now?

David - Yes. It is a well-established pattern as Lucie is describing. I think what we have to recognize is that first of all, we've got ever greater and more sophisticated electricity distribution systems. And secondly, we are more dependent on satellites than ever before. Third, which I should've added to the list, there are some issues about aircraft, air travel near the poles, how much exposure to radiation there is particularly for pilots and crew who are regularly flying. So, there are several reasons why a modern high tech world is more vulnerable. I think that given that we have this understanding of the science what we're doing, is investing now in the capability. Out of the science budget we've put in about 2 million pounds for the IT infrastructure to really harness the data and we're putting in another 4.5 million pounds or so to deliver operational services. We'll be working very closely with the Americans and I think it's both a great way of ensuring better advanced notice for our infrastructure. It is also pushing forward the frontiers of science and linking science to actual operational requirements like space weather forecasting. I think that's what many scientists like to see us doing, using their increased understanding of things like solar activity and putting it to practical use.

Chris - Looking at it another way though, 4.5 million pounds, that's what a thousand hip replacements, you could probably do a couple of thousand cataract operations and give people their sight back in old age for that same money. There are already people doing space weather forecasting in America. Couldn't we borrow their space weather forecast and make more old people mobile?

David - Well, the science budget is modest compared with the health budget. I think the guaranteed 4.6 billion pounds a year we put in to science is absolutely the right thing to be doing. We should be incredibly proud of the quality of our science. Within that, I think that space science and understanding solar activity is an area where Britain has high quality science. And then in turn - although of course yes, the Americans have got some of these data sets, Britain brings something to the party. We're not simply people who should be sitting around endlessly saying "well we can get it off the Americans". We're very good at writing software. We're very good at solar science. We are genuine partners in this project and like in so many other areas of science activity, if we're bloody good at it and if we've got these capabilities, it's right to use them. We don't need to simply be dependent on other people.

Chris - Fair enough, but I put it to you, I cannot download Downtown Abbey on my computer 6 miles outside of Cambridge, despite the fact that some of those companies that you've sited as making Britain foremost in the world are sighted not far from where I live because my internet connection is so appalling. Should we not be pushing more money into getting our population better connected because regardless of space weather, if there's a big coronal mass ejection, I'm not going to notice because my technology is in the dark ages already.

David - I can sense you have a strong personal grievance there and I would not dispute it. You're absolutely entitled to be frustrated about that and actually, in a separate bit of the government, we are absolutely trying to particularly tackle some of these not spots and get people properly onto fast broadband connections. In fact, I think we're on track for getting further to that by 2015 than most other advanced western countries. But the decision was not - I have to say - the decision that came across my desk was not, "should we put more money into improving broadband services within 6 miles of Cambridge or into space weather forecast." That's not quite how government functions. What we actually had an issue with, what's the best way of using the science budget and the budget that I put into the Met Office. Given that the space weather is actually now on our top 4 or 5 list of national infrastructure problems and risks, it would be a disaster if in a year or two - imagine that we did have power outages. Even dare I suggest, imagine we have power outages in Cambridgeshire and we hadn't had the advanced notice. Now, this is where I'm not an electricity engineer, but my understanding is, if they get some advanced notice, what they can do is operate the national grid, bring all their equipment online, operating it, so that they can spread the load and that reduces the risks of outages across the system. So, we're insuring you against that risk and it's worth doing.

Chris - Good to hear. Lucie, why does the sun manage to knockout connections and power grids, and things?

Lucie - Well, the sun really is a much larger object that we may appreciate. So, what I mean by that is that it has a very, very extended outer atmosphere that reaches out for billions of kilometres through the solar system. So, Voyager 1 spacecraft has recently passed through the edge of the sun's atmosphere at about - I think it was over 15 billion km away. So, the Earth is sitting in a very variable atmosphere of our local star. It's changes in this atmosphere that affect the Earth through changes to the Earth's magnetic field. So, I mentioned earlier on the solar winds that is an expansion of the sun's atmosphere, that's what carries it out to these vast distances. Within that solar wind, there are bubbles of magnetic field that get blasted out called coronal mass ejections and these solar flares, and very high energy particle events as well. But really, it is effects to the Earth's magnetic field through solar activity within its atmosphere that eventually propagate down to the Earth's surface and then have effects on, for example, the national grid.


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