Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 80

Submission from the British Antarctic Survey


1.1  Space weather

  Space Weather is a recognised term that refers to conditions on the Sun and the Earth that adversely affect technological systems. For example, solar eruptions can emit energetic charged particles and cause large scale disruptions to the Earth's magnetic field which cause damage and loss of satellites on orbit, increased radiation dose to aircrew and malfunctions in aircraft systems, disruption to navigation signals, radio communications, power generation and power lines, and other effects (see Figure).

  The UK has a considerable financial interest in the systems affected. For example, a modern telecommunications satellite costs about $200 million to build, about $100 million to launch into geostationary orbit and insurance rates are between 3% and 5% each year. There are more than 300 satellites in geostationary orbit alone. More than half all space insurance is done through London, and the UK has major satellite construction and service (operator) industries.

  The benefits of a space weather programme are extremely difficult to quantify since loss estimates from companies are not available due to the possibility of losing a large contract in the future. However, other countries consider the problem sufficiently important to fund their own space weather centres to support commercial and defence interests. For example, the USA funds a Space Environment Centre, which conducts research, makes predictions and issues warnings and advice on space weather events. The US Air Force also funds it own centre. More widely, Japan, France, Russia, Canada and even countries such as Poland have a national space weather centre.

  The UK has no national space weather programme or policies. It has considerable relevant scientific research expertise, which is mainly funded through the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC). The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has decided not to fund space weather, even as a hazard, within its new strategy. Within the ESA space weather falls between the science programme and application programmes, and therefore receives very little funding or support. The EU does not support space weather.

  We ask the committee to:

    —    Consider the UK commercial and defence interests at stake;

    —    Recognise that considerable scientific expertise exists in the UK, but future funding is uncertain;

    —    Consider whether a UK national space weather programme or centre is desirable to provide funding of research into applications.

1.2  Nuclear detonations in space

  New research shows that if a nuclear weapon were detonated in space today energetic particles from the explosion would destroy all satellites in low earth orbit within a period of one to two months. Defence, remote sensing and telecommunications satellites would be most affected. The harmful particle radiation would remain trapped in the Earth's magnetic field for years and reduce the lifetime of GPS and communications satellites in higher orbits. It is not clear when new satellites could be launched again into low earth orbit. The growing possibility of a terrorist nuclear state and local nuclear conflict make evaluation important.

  The US Air Force and Navy are funding research on methods to remove the harmful radiation by transmitting various types of radio waves. This would protect satellites on orbit after an event, and enable new satellites to be launched. The UK has considerable expertises across the Universities, Research Council Institutes, and Defence industry which could be pulled together to determine ways of removing the radiation. However, in the UK the problem has not been clearly identified, nor a need expressed for research in this area.

  We ask the committee to:

    —    Recognise the scale of damage that could be caused to defence and commercial satellites after a nuclear explosion in space;

    —    Note that this risk has risen, as more countries acquire nuclear capability and the growing possibility of a nuclear terrorist state;

    —    That effective measures to remove radiation after an explosion in space are possible, but require research that crosses the both Defence and Research Council remits;

    —    Consider whether the UK should lead a research programme in this area, and how it may be best organised, for example, nationally and or as an EU/ESA security initiative of the GMES programme.


2.1  UK leadership in space

  The UK has a tradition of leadership in certain sectors of the space industry but is facing a growing challenge from other nations which are investing heavily in space and space technology. As the development time for major ESA missions becomes longer and longer, it is difficult to maintain the capacity of the science and technology base.

  We ask the committee to

    —    Consider the visibility and success of BNSC;

    —    Consider how BNSC or a new space agency may take a stronger leadership role;

    —    Consider ways of maintaining the space technology capacity eg through more bilateral missions and/or UK micro-satellite opportunities.

2.2  Climate change and Research Council funding

  There is increasing evidence that the particles and magnetic fields ejected from the Sun (the solar wind) have a significant influence on the climate system. This has been identified as one of the largest unknown causes of climate change in the most recent Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change report. This science transcends the remit of the Natural Environment Research Council and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (soon to be become the Science and Technology Facilities Council) but cooperation between the Research Councils has been very limited and has impeded research.

  Cross-research council and interdisciplinary science have been recognised as key issues in the Government's Next Steps and acknowledgement of the issues but practical steps to address the problems appear some way off.

  We ask the committee to:

    —    Recognise that there are significant impediments to progress in cross-research council working, space being an excellent illustration;

    —    Consider using space as an exemplar to improve cross-council delivery.

November 2006

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