Out of this world – why space weather forecasting is a huge boon to Earth

Out of this world – why space weather forecasting is a huge boon to Earth
The new South African National Space Agency building in Hermanus. (Photo: Supplied)

The physics of it all may be confusing to most people, but the earthly uses are easy to grasp.

Scientist Mike Kosch from the South African National Space Agency (Sansa) in Hermanus, Western Cape, might roll the elements of space physics off his tongue as if they were part of a weekend grocery list, but when it comes to the nitty gritty of understanding exactly what is going on in the so-called empty spaces of our universe, it’s nice to know that this custodian of deep space knowledge is as ordinary as you and I.

“I think its words like space physics, magnetic data, electrons, neutrons that put people off,” he laughs. “They are seen as something mystical, far beyond human understanding. But really, that’s not the case.

“Opening the mind to the idea that there are a lot of things we don’t know and need to know – that’s the more important bit.”

It’s why he believes that more needs to be done to attract bright young students to enter the field of space science. “We have the courses. We have scientists who know what they are talking about. But we need more students to enter this field.”

Kosch heads a small coterie of space scientists stationed at the agency, Africa’s only facility that collects real-time data from Earth’s immediate space and magnetic environment. The information collected from several sites and deciphered at their newly established space weather facility – designed, one suspects, to look like the Earth’s magnetic field lines – is a core part of accurate space weather forecasting that affects South Africa and beyond.

Practical uses on Earth

But that’s only a small part of the bigger picture, explains Kosch.

“A couple of million kilometres above the Earth is the solar wind that contains a massive ‘soup’ of particles or unseen matter that twists and turns and interacts every second of the day and night.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: How the sun can mess with our tech

By understanding these cosmic acrobatics, scientists liked Kosch can abstract information that helps with Earth-related communications and navigation, from air traffic control to interruptions and changes in the magnetic field owing to solar disturbances.

The biggest eye in the sky, and the one Sansa watches as part of an international space initiative, is the satellite parked at L1.

It weighs just under two tonnes and circles the sun from a distance of 1.5 million kilometres from Earth, and you can say it is hot on the trail of anything weird going on with the sun.

“Like the launch of last week’s Jupiter mission to search for signs of water on the planet’s moons, these are the incredible and costly missions aimed at increasing our knowledge of space and space matter,” says Kosch. “During the Jupiter mission’s eight-year journey there will be masses of data collected, and that’s what we will be looking for – anything that advances our knowledge of space here on Earth.”

A quick update

How many of us on Earth, bemoaning blackouts, knew that on 23 March a severe geomagnetic storm caused by a coronal mass ejection (CME) from the sun caused all sorts of technological systems to go haywire?

The CME was ejected from the sun on 20 March and took about three days to arrive on Earth. The impact is still being felt today.

It’s one of the reasons Dr Lee-Anne McKinnell, Sansa’s managing director, believes that space weather is becoming so important that “it should actually be included with the daily weather forecasts”.

Dr Michael Kosch, chief scientist at the South African National Space Agency. (Photo: Liz Clarke)

People watch the launch of inaugural test flight of Starship on the second attempt at the SpaceX launch facility in Boca Chica, Texas, on 20 April 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Abraham Pineda-Jacome)

The Space Weather Centre launched in November 2022 in Hermanus has eight full-time dedicated space weather forecasters, seven of whom are women.

The Sansa Space Weather Centre started as a magnetic observatory and South Africa’s national geomagnetic research facility.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Weather reports for space? A team in Hermanus says information may protect Earth from future impacts

It has a magnetically clean environment, making it one of the only sites in Africa measuring Earth’s magnetic field, which is based on the movement of molten iron in the core that creates electric currents. Every change in the flow of the core means changes in the magnetic field.

The South African National Space Agency crunches a lot of data. (Photo: Liz Clarke)

The magnetic field protects our planet from cosmic radiation and from the charged particles emitted by our sun. It also provides the basis for navigation with a compass.

Every year, the team of Sansa scientists produces a magnetic map of South Africa as part of an international collaboration. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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