The twin drivers of globalisation and technological advance have created a developed and developing world that is increasingly dependent on satellite technology for communication, navigation, Earth observation and defence. This growing infrastructure is vulnerable to the damaging effects of space weather. The concern is such that governments around the world now regard extreme space weather as a potential emergency situation, and it is included in the UK’s National Risk Register. Relativistic electrons, which travel at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light, are one of the most important space weather hazards. These, so-called “killer” electrons, can penetrate satellite surface materials and embed themselves in insulators and ungrounded conductors. There are currently over 1400 satellites in Earth orbit and most of these are exposed to killer electrons during some or all of their orbits. Extreme space weather events have a real capacity to damage this infrastructure as happened during a major storm in 2003 when 10% of the satellite fleet experienced anomalies and one satellite was a complete loss.
Richard B. Horne is a Science Leader at the British Antarctic Survey and Honorary Professor at the University of Sheffield. He has a BSc in Physics, a Doctorate in Space Plasma Physics, and over 35 years research experience. Between 2000 and 2010 he led two large research programmes at the British Antarctic Survey and currently leads a European Framework 7 programme called SPACESTORM to help protect satellites from Space Weather. He also leads research projects to study how energetic charged particles affect the Earth’s atmosphere and influence climate, and particle acceleration processes at the Earth, Jupiter and Saturn.
Image courtesy of NASA/Steele Hill