Mr Patrick Edwards

University College London

020 7679 1621

The space insurance industry and the TSUNAMI initiative (funded by the DTI Sector Challenge) has put up £120,000 into two one-year research projects examining the role of space weather in satellite failures.ÝÝÝScientists from Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) and British Antarctic Survey (BAS) will attempt to match known violent space weather events with satellite failures using data from the space and from the ground. MSSL will also develop a spacecraft ‘black box’ to measure the amount of exposure to ‘killer’ electrons caused by the Sun.

Space weather has been blamed for satellite failures that have cost the insurance industry billions of pounds. Solar conditions drive the space weather environment near Earth. Explosions on the Sun send gigawatts of energy hurtling towards Earth via the solar wind, causing space storms around Earth. This activity increases when the solar cycle reaches its peak every 11 years. This year sees the peak, making the studies even more urgent. Both projects will help space insurers minimise losses and set premiums.

The research funds are awarded by the Tsunami consortium[1], a group of scientists and insurers that was formed to stimulate new research proposals to improve understanding of natural hazards specifically to meet the needs of the industry.

Dr Richard Horne, Principal Investigator at BAS said,
‘We know that communication satellites have been damaged during space storms and that the number of failures appears to increase with the maximum of the 11 year solar cycle. We intend to investigate this link by comparing data collected from around the world, including Antarctica, with known failures since the beginning of the space age in 1957.’

A ‘black box’ prototype, weighing only 600 grammes , has been developed by MSSL for commercial spacecraft. The measurements will be used to analyse problems on carrier or nearby spacecraft and to develop better computer models of the space environment.

Dr Andrew Coates, leader of both projects and based at MSSL-University College London, said,

‘Since the start of the space age we have known that space is far from being empty. Near-Earth, high-energy radiation, which is hazardous to spacecraft and astronauts, is trapped in the Van Allen belts. What we don’t know is precisely how and why the particles are accelerated to dangerous million-volt energies, but we believe that changes in the solar wind are to blame. The new projects will examine these dangerous effects, which have severe commercial consequences.’

Issued by MSSL-UCL & BAS Press Offices
Dr Andrew Coates, Tel: +44-1483-204145
Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, Holmbury St Mary, Dorking RH5 6NT. Email:

Dr Richard Horne, British Antarctic Survey. Tel: +44-1223-221542
Madingley Road, Cambridge CB3 0ET
Dr Dougal Goodman, British Antarctic Survey, Chairman, TSUNAMI Board. Tel: 0708 401141
Mr James Fuller, Haggie Financial PR Tel: +44 20 7417 8989
Patrick Edwards,Head of Media Relations, University College London, 020 7 679 1621.
For Antarctic stills and video images. Contact: Linda Capper, BAS Press Office. Tel: +44 1223 221448; mobile 07714 233744.

Notes for Editors

[1] The TSUNAMI consortium members funding these projects are: Marham Consortium Management, Benfield Group, and Marsh Space Projects Limited. TSUNAMI aims to increase the competitiveness of the UK insurance industry by using the UK science effort to improve the assessment of risk. TSUNAMI is jointly funded by the consortium and the Insurance Division of the Treasury. Government support is from the Sector Challenge of the Department of Trade and Industry. See

Marham Consortium Management is part of BRIT Insurance Holdings PLC and also the manager of the Marham Space Consortium at Lloyd’s, a world leader and provider of space risks insurance capacity and expertise.

Benfield Greig Limited is the reinsurance broking division of the Benfield Greig Group, one of the foremost independent reinsurance and risk advisory companies in the world.

Marsh Space Projects Limited is the specialist space risk management and insurance broking division of Marsh.

The Mullard Space Science Laboratory is University College London’s Department of Space and Climate Physics. The Laboratory undertakes frontline research in Climate Physics, High Energy Astrophysics, Solar Physics, Space Plasma Physics and Photon and Particle Detection Systems. As the UK’s largest university space physics institute, it includes professionally staffed electronic, mechanical and software engineering groups and has designed and built instruments for more than 30 orbiting spacecraft and 200 sounding rockets. Dr Andrew Coates leads the Space Plasma Physics group. See http:\

British Antarctic Survey is responsible for almost all the UK’s research effort in Antarctica. It is a component of the Natural Environment Research Council. Dr Richard Horne is the Principal Investigator of a scientific research programme looking at energy transfer from the Sun into the Earth’s magnetic field. See http:\

Background notes:
The solar wind is a gusty ever-present stream of ions and electrons emitted by the Sun’s hot atmosphere. When solar wind conditions change sharply, for example during huge solar events called coronal mass ejections, the Earth’s magnetic environment is affected and cause large fluxes of ‘killer’ electrons that encircle the Earth with a potentially deadly effect on satellites. Also, satellite surfaces can charge to thousands of volts, ground-based compass needles can shift by 10 degrees, communications can be affected and power distribution systems can have problems.

Space is part of everybody’s daily lives. Satellites transmit television, telephone and other information around the world, and watch over our changing environment. As it tracks destructive hurricanes on Earth, a satellite might itself be damaged by another kind of storm – one which occurs in space. These magnetic storms disrupt radio communications and have caused electricity blackouts.

Magnetic storms occur in geospace – the comet-like region of Space around the Earth including the magnetosphere. Geospace is big – it’s more than a million kilometres long. It is not empty space, there just are not that many particles – if you brought all the particles down to the ground they would fit inside a typical supermarket. But what the particles lack in number they make up for in energy. Some particles zip around geospace at speeds close to the speed of light.

Geospace is where the atmospheres of the Sun and Earth meet. Every second, one million tonnes of ionised matter flow out from the Sun into space. This outflow is called the solar wind and hurtles past the Earth’s magnetosphere at hundreds of kilometres per second! As it brushes past the magnetosphere’s boundary it causes the ionised particles there to move along with it, like a breeze blowing over a wheat field moves the ears of wheat. Just as the movement of the ears of wheat at the top of the wheat stalk causes the stalk to bend and to move at all levels down to the ground, so too does the whole of geospace adjust to the motion at its boundary. In geospace magnetic field lines act like the wheat stalks, connecting the motions hundreds of thousands of kilometres away in space to winds just a hundred kilometres above the Earth’s surface. Not only do ionised particles move with the magnetic field lines but they also move along them. As they rain down magnetic field lines towards the Earth they can collide with other neutral particles and emit a light called the AURORA. Since most of the magnetic field lines are rooted near the northern and southern magnetic poles, the aurora and the other effects of geospace are concentrated here.

The Antarctic polar region is an ideal place from which to remotely-sense the winds and precipitation in geospace. Scientists watch the aurora and record its changes with cameras. The winds in geospace cannot be seen so, scientists have made instruments called magnetometers that measure how much magnetic field lines bend in the wind. They have built radars too that send radio waves into space which bounce off the moving atmosphere there. By measuring what comes back they compute the wind speed and direction. Together with measurements from spacecraft which give the key in-situ results, scientists are beginning to understand the interaction between the outer atmospheres of the Sun and the Earth that cause this space weather.