Germany Establishes Space Weather Service

Space weather affects the Earth’s magnetic field. (Credit: NASA)

COLOGNE, Germany (DLR PR) — It is particularly easy to recognize by the auroras: the particle radiation of the sun. But the sun’s plasma eruptions not only create the natural spectacle in the polar regions. They can also interfere with satellites. In extreme cases, space weather even affects the infrastructure on earth. The Institute for Solar-Terrestrial Physics at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) observes space weather and researches to better understand and predict the interactions. The DLR Institute in Neustrelitz (Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania) opened on May 26, 2021.

“Our high-tech society has a high need for protection. Therefore, precautions must be taken to avoid negative effects of space weather on our infrastructure on the ground, in the air and in earth orbit, ”emphasizes Prof. Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla, Chairwoman of the DLR Executive Board. “With the establishment of our new institute in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania we would like to make a contribution to the development of a national space weather service.”

The DLR Institute for Solar-Terrestrial Physics conducts both basic and applied research. The aim is to protect the technological infrastructures in space and on earth from damage caused by space weather. A space weather service is being set up for this purpose.

DLR Institute plans with 80 employees

The new institute is located at the DLR site in Neustrelitz, which has been in existence since 1992. The focus here is on the topics of satellite data reception, satellite remote sensing, navigation, maritime traffic and maritime security as well as space weather. The Institute for Solar-Terrestrial Physics currently has around 50 employees, and in the long term it should be up to 80.

“The German Aerospace Center is not only a lighthouse in top research for Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, but also throughout Germany,” says Minister of Science Bettina Martin The state is supporting this important step with around 10 million euros and will in future contribute around 670,000 per year to the material and operating costs. “

Aurora over Iceland (Credit: ESA)

Strong solar storms break through the protective magnetic field of the earth

The sun’s radiation and plasma bursts, also called solar storms, have different intensities and frequencies. Basically, the earth’s magnetic field offers protection against solar storms. However, certain solar activities, such as so-called solar flares or a coronal mass ejection, eject electromagnetic rays or a huge ensemble of ionized particles into orbit. You overcome the protective shield of the earth.

“Space weather and its consequences are not just limited to space. Depending on the intensity, it can also lead to disruptions in the power supply or in radio communications on earth, ”says Thomas Jarzombek, Federal Government Coordinator for Aerospace. “We are aware of the potential economic damage that space weather can cause and we take this threat seriously. Therefore I am very happy about the newly founded institute at the Neustrelitz location and the enormous scientific contribution to the protection of the population that is being made there. “

In our high-tech times, a pronounced solar storm leads to high economic damage and satellite failures. Electrical supply networks can collapse. In addition, the on-board electronics and the navigation of airplanes, ships and cars are dangerously disrupted. In addition, a solar storm hinders the transmission of television, radio and cell phone signals. With sufficient advance warning, countermeasures are possible in good time. Satellites are already being temporarily switched off. Passenger planes that fly over the polar regions during solar storms change to lower areas of the atmosphere or change course.

Better understanding of the complex relationships

The focus of research at the new DLR Institute for Solar-Terrestrial Physics is the ionospheric-thermosphere-magnetospheres (ITM) system. These are atmospheric areas of the earth with special properties and interactions that are influenced by solar storms. A better understanding of the complex interrelationships ensures that the negative consequences of space weather can be predicted and avoided.

Research into the ionosphere has a long tradition in Neustrelitz: antennas have been ready to receive here since 1913, initially for the experimental radio station of the Imperial Telegraph Research Office. The signal reached up to 100 kilometers, i.e. straight into the ionosphere. The gas there is electrically charged because of the solar radiation – it is ionized. The ionosphere acts as a kind of mirror for radio waves.

Space weather events

In 1859 the English astronomer Richard Christopher Carrington observed a huge explosion on the sun for the first time. A magnetic storm was registered on Earth 20 hours later. The cause was the solar plasma hurled towards the earth. The solar storm affected the alignment of compass needles. There was damage to power lines and the telegraph system. Northern lights could even be seen in Cuba.

In 1989 the power supply went out for nine hours in Québec, Canada. Caused by a violent solar storm, there was strong electromagnetic induction in overhead lines, which led to transformer failures and partial destruction.