The South African National Space Agency’s (Sansa’s) Space Weather Regional Warning Centre, at Hermanus, in the Western Cape, was recently officially reopened by Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane following its recent upgrade. This is the only Space Weather Regional Warning Centre in Africa. The Minister noted the important role of space science in supporting economic development, promoting cooperation in research and development and building a knowledge economy, as well as mitigating the effects of adverse space weather events (such as satellite communications failures, disruptions to commercial aviation services and electricity blackouts).
Space weather refers to conditions on the sun, the solar wind, the magnetosphere, the ionosphere and the thermosphere that can influence the performance and reliability of space-based and ground-based technology systems. The main space weather phenomena are solar flares, solar energetic particles (protons, electrons and helium ions) and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Solar flares can disrupt high frequency (HF) radio communications and satellite communications. Solar energetic particles can damage satellites and disrupt HF communications. Those CMEs that come towards the earth can affect HF communications and satellite navigation systems, increase the drag on satellites (causing orbital decay) and generate auroras. CMEs also create geomagnetically induced currents, which affect electrical power systems, oil pipelines and even undersea cables.
“Extreme space weather storms are a risk that could endanger the economy, costing South Africa billions of rands if not mitigated effectively,” highlighted Sansa CEO Dr Val Munsami. “Governments in several countries, including the US and the UK, recently listed space weather on their national risk registers.”
“Space weather is a global phenomenon with regional impact,” pointed out Sansa space science MD Dr Lee-Anne McKinnell. “Severe space weather storms can negatively impact numerous sectors and our increasingly interconnected and interdependent technological systems today can cause a cascade of operational failures. The defence, communications, navigation, aviation and energy sectors are especially vulnerable to the effects of space weather.
“The upgraded system provides our team with a superior platform to monitor the sun and its activity in far greater detail for more accurate space weather forecasts, warnings and alerts, as well as environmental data on space weather conditions for use by governments and private-industry users in Africa,” she affirmed. This new facility will undoubtedly add significantly to our space weather service offerings, improve our understanding of our solar terrestrial environment and enable Sansa to further leverage the benefits of space science and technology for the African continent.”
Sansa’s Space Weather Regional Warning Centre was originally set up in 2010. It forms part of the International Space Environment Service, which coordinates space weather activities around the world. Its mission is to develop the country’s space weather capabilities, improve the awareness and understanding of space weather in Africa (not just South Africa) and provide a space weather operations system for the public, industry and government.
The centre now employs the latest technology. It has 15 high-definition 46-inch TV screens, each one showing live satellite imagery of the sun, in different wavelengths, as well as real-time data from Sansa’s network of space monitoring instruments. These are deployed across Southern Africa, on Gough Island and Marion Island and in Antarctica. (Gough Island is a British possession and lies 2 700 km west of Cape Town; South Africa has been authorised to maintain a scientific – originally weather – station there since 1956. Marion Island is a South African possession, 1 769 km south-east of Port Elizabeth, also with a scientific station. Neither has a permanent human population.)