The Space Weather bill will inflate without funding the science

We interviewed Hermann Opgenoorth, Solar System and Exploration Panel Chair at the European Space Science Committee to discuss space weather impacts on Earth and European efforts to protect our 'Pale Blue Dot'.   

“... there is no shame in not knowing. The problem arises when irrational thought and attendant behavior fill the vacuum left by ignorance,” Neil deGrasse Tyson, The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist.

“Nobody knew that was space weather” 

Even for Hermann Opgenoorth, Professor Emeritus of Space Physics at Umeå University, Sweden, space weather is still a new field. “I sometimes say I worked with space weather for 40 years, even before it existed as a field. I was a physicist who got interested in studying space physics, which did not exist at most universities at the time. In the 70s, I stumbled upon a space science project run by the Institute of Geophysics in Münster, Germany. I did not understand why we had to dig a hole and put magnetometers two meters in the ground to study space. They had to be underground to be temperature isolated for us to measure the magnetic field from currents originating in the Aurora. Nobody knew that was to become space weather. After many more experiments, starting by looking at a hole in the ground, I became head of solar system missions at the European Space Agency (ESA),” says Opgenoorth. 

Space weather impacts on Earth  

It is unequivocal that space weather is dangerous both on Earth and in space. Activity on the sun is the main culprit behind events such as the 1859 geomagnetic storm (Carrington Event) and the 1989 Quebec Electrical Blackout. The sun has an 11-year sunspot cycle. Now it’s approaching “solar maximum” again, where the greatest solar activity occurs. The next solar maximum is expected to begin in 2025. Space weather can jeopardize human infrastructure and life on Earth and anywhere else in the solar system. Eruptions of plasma and magnetic field structures from the sun's atmosphere called coronal mass ejections (CMEs), and sudden bursts of radiation, called solar flares, can cause Space Weather effects on or near Earth. This invisible threat can cause satellite anomalies, lead to an end of a space mission, and strong solar storms can impact Earth's electrical and communication infrastructure similar to historical Space Weather events

In 2012, a solar superstorm that would have wreaked havoc missed Earth by just a week. Preparing for calamitous space weather events is, therefore, a global priority.   

Human space missions - a Big Brother experiment? 

Only three planets in our solar system could have developed into relatively similar conditions, which could potentially harbour life; Earth, Mars, and Venus. Earth and Mars are like two siblings who grew apart. Four billion years ago, both were warm, had water, magnetic fields, and were shielded by thick atmospheres. But suddenly (actually around 4 billion years ago) Mars’s magnetic field died out and its atmosphere and most of its water eventually disappeared, by processes still not fully understood today, Mars is barren and lacks most of its atmosphere and water. Venus, on the other side, never had a magnetic field as far as we know. Today, Venus is a ”hellish” world, with a carbon dioxide atmosphere 90 times as thick as Earth.  

Exploring Venus and Mars explains why Earth is the way it is and what could happen to it if the environment changes. “As a scientist, the solar system fascinates me. Exploring the solar system helps us understand why Earth is such a fantastic planet. However, humankind is not really prepared to leave the shielding of a protective atmosphere due to space weather risks. If we are to send humans to space, we should do so knowing the risks and hazards,” explains Opgenoorth.

Space weather effects on humans could include radiation sickness, increased risk for cancer, degenerative diseases and central nervous system effects. Hence, in quest of the universe, are we willing to risk losing people in the process? “Willingly sacrificing humans is ruthless. For me, sending humans to other planets is still the ultimate Big Brother experiment, however, without a feasible abort option,” argues Opgenoorth.  

Space weather efforts – Too many cooks spoil the soup 

With its interdisciplinarity nature, space weather involves several research fields. That adds to the overlapping efforts in Europe creating confusion rather than union.  

Since 2017, Opgenoorth has been leading an initiative to assess space weather activities across Europe. In 2019, his team published a provocative report, with one major overarching conclusion - there is an urgent need to consolidate space weather efforts in Europe.  

The report calls for organised efforts and coordination between activities across ESA and EU member states. It proposes solutions, such as a call for a new space weather organisation. Joining forces with a host organisation such as the European Geophysical Union (EGU), or even becoming a member of organisations such as the European Physical Society (EPS), is presently being discussed by the European Space Weather community at large. Yet the question remains, is joining an old organisation the right move for such a young field?  

Prevention is better than treatment  

Experts warned of pandemics decades ago, yet the world was not ready to face COVID-19. Similar to pandemics and environmental crises, space weather events pose a borderless intractable threat. Better forecast systems are crucial to staving off expected fatalities, infrastructure damages, and economic and environmental losses. NASA and ESA have satellites and spacecraft that can send an alarm when needed. For example, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) observes coronal mass ejections. Other spacecraft monitor the sun and detect solar storms and changes in the solar wind. However, they can only offer a short time warning to predict major events, and thus efforts to combat this should involve all stakeholders, especially politicians. 

“We cannot wait to be hit completely unprepared. We need the political will to address space weather risks. Funding collaborative international research is the first step in accepting this as a global threat. It is no longer enough to only explore the scientific aspects of space weather individually - one by one in isolation, it needs to be looked upon as a connected system,” concludes Opgenoorth.  

As we continue venturing further into space, we need consolidated research efforts to model and investigate the evolution of solar activity and its impact on planetary environments. Europe has underinvested in space weather research. But with a consolidated effort to explore what’s unknown, the long term gains are extensive, immense—and potentially lifesaving. 

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the European Space Sciences Committee.