Accurately predicting space weather before launching any new missions, crewed or uncrewed, has been essential to ensuring safe travel conditions for the space ventures.
But can we ever be too safe in forecasting space weather, which is known to be volatile and unpredictable? As our technological capabilities continue to advance, we also persevere in making the space environment safe and sustainable. One such effort took place in the United Kingdom where Open Cosmos, a British satellite startup, managed to acquire European Space Agency (ESA) funding to plan and design a space weather monitoring constellation.
The 5.2 million euro contract by ESA was awarded to Open Cosmos on 27 May 2022 for the proposed project on a three-satellite NanoMagSat network. The NanoMagSat aspect of the network is meant to monitor and measure the Earth’s magnetic field and the ionospheric environment where space weather can endanger vital infrastructure in orbit.
As of current, our planet’s magnetic field and ionospheric environment have been monitored by ESA Swarm satellites since 2013. They have been extremely efficient in aiding research regarding solar storms, magnetosphere and ionosphere, Antarctica’s ice sheets, and even migratory patterns of animals.
Florian Deconinck, vice president of partnerships and future missions at Open Cosmos, noted that the NanoMagSat satellite network on the other hand will be equipped with additional sensors and provide improved spatial and temporal coverage. While the three-satellite Swarm constellation is composed of satellites weighing 468 kilogram each in near-polar orbit, the NanoMagSat only weighs 24–30 kilograms each, typical for a 16-unit cubesat. The NanoMagSat concept will have one satellite stationed to the polar orbit, whereas the remaining two will be inclined at 60 degrees.
According to Open Cosmos, this strategy will allow NanoMagSat to conduct improved temporal revisits (the time it takes to return to and gather data from the same location at the same time) with shorter timelines than Swarm, where the four-month temporal revisits for latitudes within 60° degrees north and south will be reduced to slightly more than one month.
On top of having better positioned and efficient satellites, the NanoMagSat will also be equipped with a combination of instruments, such as an absolute and a high frequency magnetometer to detect and study magnetic fields. Open Cosmos stated that the additional capabilities will enable the satellites to not only monitor space weather conditions, but also facilitate accurate navigation and supply data for the geophysical surveying of minerals.
The need for the valuable observation and study of space weather is a global objective with USA’s National Science Foundation (NSF) $2.5 million funding going towards a Mānoa-led project at the University of Hawaiʻi. The $2.5 million grant will finance the four-year project to develop a space weather station center on the UH Mānoa campus and deploy a neutron monitor on Maui.
Researchers believe that this effort will considerably advance their research in this field as the project will measure the solar energetic particles and solar neutron particles, which are known to be powerful particles emitted by the Sun.
These solar particles are a threat to astronauts and can damage electronics and other crucial infrastructure in space. The observations from the project will help researchers construct alert systems to improve the accuracy of space weather predictions that will ensure the safety of astronauts during space missions.