Met Office to launch round-the-clock space weather forecasts

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Daily space weather forecasts are to be launched by the Met Office from next spring, providing early warnings of solar storms that can disrupt satellite systems and power grids.

The 24-hour service will be aimed at helping businesses and government departments protect vital technologies including radio communications and GPS.

Over the next three years the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will support the scheme with £4.6m of funding.

This will help the Met Office develop better ways of predicting space weather, in collaboration with American colleagues from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Mark Gibbs, head of space weather at the Met Office, said: “Space weather is a relatively immature science but understanding is growing rapidly.

“The Met Office is working with NOAA Space Weather Prediction Centre in the US in a collaboration which aims to enable both organisations to accelerate the development of improved space weather models and prediction systems to make more effective use of space weather data.

“This investment will enable the Met Office to complete the space weather forecasting capability that it has been developing over the past two years and begin delivering forecasts, warnings and alerts to key sectors to minimise the impact to the technology-based services we all rely on.”

Space weather is driven by energetic particles from the Sun which can damage sensitive satellite components and induce current surges strong enough to knock out power grids on Earth.

Solar flares and eruptions in the Sun’s atmosphere called coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are powerful sources of potentially destructive solar storms.

The Sun’s activity follows a regular cycle and peaks roughly every 11 years, when solar emissions become more intense.

In March 1989 a geomagnetic storm caused by energetic particles from a CME interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field tripped circuit breakers protecting Quebec’s power grid and led to a massive blackout.

Andrew Richards, a risk analyst for the National Grid, said: “A round-the-clock UK forecasting service for space weather is essential as part of National Grid’s procedures for running the electricity transmission network securely and safely. It is great news for National Grid that the Met Office has secured funding for its space weather forecasting operations.”

Science and Universities Minister David Willetts said: “Space is one of the eight great technologies of the future and I’m pleased that this worthwhile project has received the funding it’s due.”

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