South Africa joins international space weather monitoring community

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South Africa is looking to take a leading role in the international space weather monitoring community, as it moves to become a key provider of space weather information to the African aviation sector.

Dr Phil Mjwara, Department of Science and Technology (DST) director-general, recently visited the Space Weather Regional Warning Centre for Africa, a facility managed by DST entity the South African National Space Agency (SANSA).

Based in Hermanus in Western Cape the SANSA facility is the only such centre on the continent, and was designated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as one of two regional centres worldwide to monitor space weather for the global aviation, providing safety-related services such as solar storm forecasts and warnings.

The designation followed an extensive assessment process involving three global centres – the US, a pan-European consortium and an Australia, Canada, France and Japan consortium – and two regional centres – the South African one and a joint Russia-China one.

South Africa’s space weather centre now has three years to meet ICAO requirements to maintain the space weather monitor designation. The global centres are delivering on ICAO requirements while the regional centres have until 2022 to build the necessary capacity.

“The proposal to build SANSA’s space weather centre capacity reached us and we are considering it. We are almost certain we will be funding the centre to ensure it meets the requirements to become fully accredited,” Mjwara said during a tour of the Hermanus facility.

“In a few years the aviation industry will have to have information on space weather before flying. As government, we see the value not only from a scientific perspective but from an economic perspective and the value this brings to society.”

Space weather events are capable of disrupting modern technologies such as satellites, GPS, power grids and navigation and communication systems. High-frequency radio communication infrastructure, as well as ground and air-based navigation systems, can be disabled or knocked out entirely by solar storms, while radiation exposure poses a hazard for airline crew and passengers, especially during long-haul flights.

To mitigate the risks to aircraft and airports, ICAO recommends the aviation sector familiarise itself with the potential impacts of space weather events and ensures space weather information forms part of flight plans in future. The organisation has also regulated that this information filters down to air crew and cabin staff, according to a Department of Science and Technology statement.

As South Africa prepares to meet ICAO requirements, discussions to establish a 24/7 operation, expand the physical space in which the space weather centre currently operates, and train more people – in particular space weather forecasters – are underway.

“We need to grow capacity to do this. Space weather forecasting is a skill learned on the job and we will implement a training programme and roll out a quality management system,” said SANSA managing director Dr Lee-Anne McKinnell.

“South Africa is right there, learning with our international partners, influencing decisions,” she said, adding the ICAO recommendation would impact every flight to and from Africa.

SANSA has partnered with the Pan-European Consortium for Aviation Space weather User Services (PECASUS), a nine-country collaboration, to provide the ICAO with space weather information for the African region. This will connect the South African space industry to international models and expertise.

“We believe this will add to the value proposition for space science and technology in Africa. Everything in the space weather centre is underpinned by the excellent research capacity in South Africa. SANSA has identified where the gaps are and we will focus on them,” McKinnell said.

SANSA chief executive Dr Val Munsami said plans to establish a research chair dedicated to space weather research under the DST’s South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) were in place.

“This will be an internationally recognised expert who will help build capacity by training master’s and PhD students. We decided to upskill around this particular centre,” Munsami said.

In South Africa, SANSA works with Air Traffic and Navigation Services (ATNS), the SA Weather Service (SAWS), the SA Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) and other partners implementing the ICAO recommendations.