Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Written Evidence

Memorandum 22

Submission from Heads of relevant UK Research Groups[42]


  1.  We are writing in connection with the recent announcement by the Science and Technology Facilities Council to cease support for ground-based Solar-Terrestrial Physics.

  2.  At present, the UK has an unrivalled and highly cost-effective Solar-Terrestrial Physics research programme, which underpins a number of key areas for UK science, technology and society. This is an outstanding example of marrying top-quality, world-leading scientific research[43] with knowledge exchange. Over the past five years, prize-winning UK research using ground-based STP data has revealed century-scale changes in the Sun and Earth's "space climate". Allied to change in Earth's intrinsic magnetic field, which is now faster than at any time since observations began, these studies show that we must expect, and plan for, change in many phenomena arid effects relevant to modern life including:

    —  the fluxes of solar and cosmic energetic particles hazardous to satellites and humans operating in space or in high-altitude aircraft

    —  the performance of positioning and navigation systems such as Galileo and GPS

    —  disruption to oil and mineral exploration schedules, power distribution networks, broadcast and communications systems

    —  electronics malfunction rates on board aircraft, satellites and ground-based systems.

  3.  We now know that the cost-effective design, safe operation and financial insurance of all these systems cannot depend on out-dated knowledge, because our space environment is too variable on the timescales of decades to centuries. It is absolutely essential that we should not lose the national capability in STP/Space Weather and involvement in key growth areas such as satellite situational awareness and integrated space applications which, through highly effective Knowledge Exchange, anderpins this wide range of commercial, security and military activities (of which several are classified).

  4.  Because satellite observations are only made from a rapidly-moving vantage point, ground-based monitoring of space weather is a key complement to data from space. Such observations also make major contributions to a wide range of other scientific studies including:

    —  coupling between the upper atmosphere, the middle atmosphere and the troposphere (an inadequately addressed interface with NERC science and climate change studies)

    —  detection of intrinsic magnetic fields on extrasolar planets and understanding of their role in preventing atmospheric erosion and allowing habitability

    —  development of ground-penetrating exploration radars for the Earth and the Moon

    —  fundamental mechanisms in plasma physics

    —  solar system formation (using an unique ability to discriminate between extra-solar and solar-system micrometeorites)

    —  design and operations for the AURORA programme

    —  error correction and calibration for low frequency radio astronomy satellite orbital decay predictions

    —  monitoring of potentially lethal space debris down to 1 cm dimensions.

5.  The savings made by cutting ground-based STP facilities are relatively small, but wholly disproportionate damage will be done to our national infrastructure. We urge those of you who are responsible for overseeing the implementation of the seemingly inevitable reductions in spending on the physical sciences to safeguard this small but vital area in which the UK plays a world-leading role.

January 2005

42   See Appendix. Back

43   As rated, for example, by the 2005 International Review supported by PPARC, RAS, loP and EPSRC:
http:/fwww.ras!images/stories/ras pdfs/2005review/2005%2OReview.pdf 

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