Lancaster University: New technology for space weather monitoring from the ground

A new generation of radiation detectors are being employed to help protect safety critical systems and national infrastructure against the effects of severe space weather.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) RAL Space have awarded £131,000 to Lancaster University to design a prototype network of radiation detectors which will help with predicting and understanding space weather events.

Space weather refers to disturbances in the upper atmosphere and space environment around the Earth, caused by activity at the Sun which can disrupt technology, including causing risks to safe aircraft operation, power outages, and satellite navigation errors.

A new network of ground based radiation detectors

The first international network of ground-level neutron monitors were established in 1957 but there are now only around 50 active stations worldwide and none in the UK. The funding will kick off a 12-month design phase during which a team from Lancaster University will design smaller, cheaper monitors.

Traditional monitors rely on detectors that are either no longer financially viable or use highly toxic materials. The team intend to employ detector technology recently developed as an alternative.

The development of the new design could lead to two monitors being installed and tested in the UK and ultimately a new UK network and technology that could be exported to boost radiation monitoring across the world. Such a network would provide global monitoring, preparing humankind for the impact of severe space weather on power grids, global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), spacecraft, aircraft, radio communications and control systems.

Dr Michael Aspinall, the Principal Investigator and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Engineering at Lancaster University, said: “We are delighted to be working on such a relevant and exciting project. Our team has an extensive and proven track record in detector and instrumentation design and deployment – I’m thrilled to lead such a knowledgeable and experienced team. We hope to deliver a viable, demonstrable solution that is cheaper and with better performance than existing ground-level neutron monitors. Ultimately this will enable the reintroduction of monitoring in the UK and a major increase in monitoring worldwide.”

The UK’s efforts to protect against space weather

This funding is part of a £20 million research programme, funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to improve the UK Met Office’s ability to monitor and predict space weather events.

The UK is home to one of just three space weather forecasting centres in the world as well as a world-leading space weather research community. The Space Weather Innovation, Modelling, Measurement and Risk (SWIMMR) programme aims to bring the UK’s cutting edge research into the operational environment to improve the Met Office’s ability to provide warnings. This will help the government, electricity grid, satellite operators and airlines to take steps to mitigate the impacts of a solar storm.

So far, more than £12 million has been allocated by STFC RAL Space and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) on studies to improve space weather models used by the Met Office. The next part of the programme will include funding for new kinds of sensors installed not just on the ground, as with this project, but also on satellites and aeroplanes, providing a more complete set of data into the Met Office radiation models.

Dr Ian McCrea, Head of Space Physics and Operations and SWIMMR programme manager, STFC RAL Space said: “There has never been a research programme like this which so comprehensively brings together the UK’s science and technology expertise in space weather, with our operational infrastructure. We can’t stop space weather events happening but if we know when they are coming, we can prepare vulnerable sectors and help ensure that events of this kind can be safely managed in the UK. The new technology proposed by Lancaster is very exciting and alongside planned new sensors on planes and satellites could enhance the Met Office’s ability to predict and protect.”

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