Our vulnerability to disruption is increasing

We caught up with Dr Gemma Attrill, The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory’s (Dstl)’s lead for space weather research and space environment, to talk about her work looking at the R&D that might be needed in the next 20-30 years, as well as support to current operations.


We hear a lot about extreme weather conditions becoming more common on earth. is that also the case for space weather? What are your main mitigation challenges?

Space weather has a roughly eleven-year activity cycle, and every eleven years you move from periods of quieter solar activity through to periods of more disturbed activity, so that means more eruptions from the sun in terms of coronal mass ejections. This is plasma and magnetic field material being blasted away from the sun, many times the mass of Mount Everest, and also pure energy eruptions in terms of solar flares.

The key thing that’s of concern are the more extreme events – the really, really big eruptions, and these have a probability of about 12% per decade. History shows us that those type of events can occur at any point in that eleven-year solar cycle. So even when background conditions are relatively quiet, you can still get these significant eruptions happening.

From that sense, space weather is not becoming increasingly common; it has its own pattern that it settles into, but we do have these major eruptions.

In terms of mitigations, that is something that is of increasing concern, and it’s due to the more sensitive technologies that we use today. Of the more extreme events, the largest one we have measurements for was in 1859; the technology of the time was the telegraph system, and that induced such strong currents along the telegraph wires that they caught fire. Today, we have many more sensitive engineering solutions, which increases our vulnerability to disruption from space weather. So although space weather itself is not becoming more common, our vulnerability to disruption is arguably increasing.

Are there any new developments or technologies you’re particularly excited about?

One of things that we support at Dstl is a recent initiative from wave 2 of the UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) strategic priorities fund. This has funded a programme called SWIMMR, which is Space Weather Instrumentation, Measurement, Modelling and Risk.

It’s designed to pull together the best of UK academic capability; and transition them through to run operationally at the Met Office’s space weather operations centre (MOSWOC). It’s being supported by the chief scientific advisers from the MoD, BEIS and the Department for Transport.

Dstl sit on both the programme board and strategic advisory group for SWIMMR. It’s really exciting watching the best of British research come together and start to be transitioned through to give the UK the very best operational capability we can achieve. It’s something I’m really interested in, in terms of getting the best space weather forecast and warnings across to end users; it’s obviously of great benefit.

The IET is celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2021, and the main theme of our celebrations is difference makers. What were the experiences that inspired you into physics and engineering?

One of the most influential things that inspired me was probably a “Women Into Physics” opportunity. When I was in the 6th form it enabled me to spend a couple of days at Sussex University seeing the incredible equipment they had in their lab – like electron microscopes – things that from a school perspective are completely crazy; that you can even imagine an electron, let alone measure the size of one.

I later did a week-long course at Manchester University about engineering, where we built our own radios. From a schoolchild’s perspective, those things really broaden your horizons and you really see the usefulness, particularly when you can take your own radio home with you that you’ve built.

I think it was that original combination of things that’s helped draw me to where I am now – that genuine interest in how things work and trying to understand nature and the impact of nature on the systems that we use.

And you mentioned that both your parents are also physicists…

No-one was more surprised than them when I said I wanted to do physics, there was no pressure to follow in their footsteps, but they certainly created that environment where it was acceptable, and something to be interested in and encouraged. So I’ve been very fortunate - if your environment isn’t supportive, it could be quite difficult to follow what you really want to do.

Being a woman wanting to work in physics was therefore always perfectly normal to me; my Dad always said you can do anything you want to do. In the environment I’m in now, there’s not so many women around; I guess you grow up with that if you go into the more technical side, which helps to normalise it. In certain fields there are a lot more women, like in solar physics where I have an academic background, which creates a welcoming environment. As I’ve progressed, I know I can still reach back to those people who have always been supportive.  At the end of the day, you just work with your colleagues, whoever they may be.

I’d like to see more women in the field of science and engineering, because we do think in a different way. There have been many studies showing that when you’re trying to solve difficult problems, having lots of different viewpoints is really important to reaching the optimum solution.

What are the next 12 months likely to bring for your work at Dstl and as a space weather expert?

I’m the UK lead for an ionospheric satellite mission called CIRCE (Coordinated Ionospheric Reconstruction CubeSat Experiment), and the UK has supplied three payloads (from University of Bath, University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd), to form a sensing suite. Our team has worked hard to progress from the initial concept through to the delivery of the flight hardware in a year.

The payloads are currently integrated and are finishing environmental testing as part of the satellite buses in the US. On CIRCE we’re working with our US colleagues at the US Naval Research Laboratory in combination with their payload, and we’re looking to have the two CIRCE satellites launched by the US Department of Defence space test programme next year. After this, we’re going to be into the data collection and analysis phase - and that’s when the real work starts.

With the datasets, we’re going to look at how those data feeds can augment our latest models of the ionosphere and see if we can improve the fidelity of its outputs by including them. There’s some really interesting science to come out of that – we’ve got two satellites that are going to be several hundred kilometres apart, but effectively passing through the same point in space very rapidly.

Usually with a constellation or a single satellite, you’d have between tens of minutes to several hours between your revisit rates, and we’re going be enjoying a much more compressed timeframe. That enables you to look not only at the spatial dynamics, but also the temporal ones as well.

If you have a plasma bubble in the ionosphere, you get to sample that rapidly, so you can build a picture of how it’s changing; and it’s those subtle changes that can have significant impacts on various systems – for example, through scintillation. So getting a better understanding of that’s going to be really exciting.

Space weather is essentially a scientific discipline and requires you to work with scientific datasets; we have a level of understanding of the physics of how the eruptions occur, and you’re talking about magnetic fields and charged particles, plasma, energy, so very much physical quantities – and then the work that I do is about understanding how those different physical elements impact different technologies - and that’s where the engineering side comes in.

Gemma is presenting a webinar on The science and “so what” of space weather on 9 February 2021, and is also speaking at the IET’s Milsatcoms conference, taking place online on 9-12 March 2021.


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