Move over Battlestar Galactica and Starship Enterprise, the UK is about to launch a swarm of spaceships into orbit around the sun.
Space scientists are planning for just such a spectacular mission after the recent success of the NASA mission "Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory" (STEREO). The STEREO spacecraft captured stunning 3D images of the sun that permitted never-before-seen views of coronal mass ejections (CMEs).
Recently, using the STEREO satellites, NASA photographed two sides of the sun simultaneously, a first.
Now excited UK scientists hope to build on NASA'a achievement with a veritable flotilla of orbiting satellites designed to capture 3D photos and videos of solar ejections. The spacecraft would monitor the sun continuously as they orbit and record any matter ejected towards Earth.
The scientists constructed the cameras for the NASA STERO project. Now they have begun talks with the European Space Agency (ESA), NASA and the government of the United Kingdom to create a new system designed to provide continuous monitoring of the CMEs and 3D imaging.
Astronomers, astrophysicists and heliologists are interested in the giant solar explosions because megatons of supercharged particles and superheated plasma is ejected outwards and interacts with the planets, including Earth. The electrified charges and radiation can cause disruptions in the electrical grid, power outages, play havoc with radio transmissions and fry satellites. Evidence also exists that the charged particles affect the upper atmosphere including the ionosphere and the Earth's magnetic field influencing planetary weather patterns.
Speaking with the UK Telegraph, the principal researcher of the STEREO mission at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK, Professor Richard Harrison stated that "We have proved that we can use the information we were getting from STEREO to make predictions. We can see these clouds leaving the sun, traveling through space and make predictions about whether they are going to hit the Earth and the impact they may have. The impacts can be quite significant and more so as we become more dependent on technology that is based in space where the material from these ejections can interfere and knock out satellites altogether."
During the past few years scientists at NASA, the ESA and the Russian space agency have grown increasingly concerned about the fragility of 21st Century technology and its exposure to violent solar storms.
Some scientists have made dire predictions of electrical grids collapsing across Europe and North America, the Internet being knocked out and exposed satellites being severely damaged. Learning more about the sun storms and having a necklace of satellites monitoring the sun can help diminish the threat of the storms somewhat with more accurate predictions.
"We are talking about relatively cheap spacecraft, but the orbit is awkward, so one of the things we are considering is build a lot of little spacecraft, send them out one at a time so that they are drifting around the Earth's orbit of the Sun so that at any time two of these will be able to send back images of the space between the Earth and sun."
The head of the solar terrestrial physics group at Reading University, Professor Mike Lockwood, agrees with Harrison. He believes the new spacecraft will aid predicting, analysis and provide more insights on the auroras.
He also thinks that small, disposable spacecraft could meet the mission profile and provide the data needed. "This would mean we always have a pair of spacecraft looking at the sun from either side of the Earth to provide a stereo view that can help up predict when ejections are going to hit us and the impact they will have."
Harrison has teamed up with Professor Mike Hapgood, head of the space environment group at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. The two are leading a group of scientists from all parts of the globe to develop a flotilla of spacecraft to replace the NASA STEREO satellites.
The scientists envision the swarm working in pairs to send the detailed 3D images back to Earth.