Business Profiles

SANSA: A weather eye

In 2010, the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) opened its Space Weather Regional Warning Centre, and in 2018, this Centre became a part of a wider network working together to assist the aviation sector with space weather information. When it was first opened in 2010, it was tasked with the following: to develop space weather capabilities within South Africa, to improve the understanding and awareness of space weather within Africa, and to provide a space weather operational service to government, industry and the public. We spoke with Dr Lee-Anne McKinnell, SANSA’s Managing Director of Space Science, to find out how the agency is achieving this, and how their work on space weather impacts the industries and services we rely on.

First off, what is space weather? The idea of ‘weather’ existing in the void of space is odd to imagine, but the term refers to the conditions in space, which in our solar system are largely affected by the sun. Lee-Anne described space weather as “a collection of physical processes, beginning at the sun and ultimately affecting technology on Earth and in space. Space weather is a consequence of the behavior of the sun, the nature of Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, and the Earth’s location in the solar system.” This might sound like an abstract concept – something that could affect space-based endeavours but that would have limited impact on everyday life, but in fact, space weather can drastically affect many of the systems that our modern world depends on. Therefore, it is important to monitor the sun and continue to study how to measure, predict, and apply data on space weather to assist the many industries it can impact.

Saying that our modern world can be greatly affected is no exaggeration: space weather can disrupt satellite and airline operations, communications networks, navigation systems, oil and gas pipelines, and even the electric power grid. We are increasingly dependent on communication technology, from personal use to national security, which is why Lee-Anne argues that space weather science is increasingly essential. “As global economies and individual nations become ever more dependent on these technologies, space weather poses an increasing risk to infrastructure and the economy. Although the frequency of space weather events follows the solar cycle, the exact timing, occurrence and impact of a space weather event on Earth is not known, and therefore, constant monitoring of the Sun as well as other factors in the space environment is required to ensure preparedness for an impact.”

SANSA’s space weather research is built upon an eighty-year legacy, conducted at an internationally recognised magnetic observatory and space science research facility. SANSA operates four permanent magnetic observatories in Southern Africa, all of which are INTERMAGNET accredited and deliver continuous high quality magnetic field data, but the Hermanus Observatory which hosts the Space Weather Centre is unique in that it houses a preserved, magnetically clean environment, which allows for compass calibrations and other operations that would not be possible elsewhere.

Given the importance of this science, SANSA’s Space Weather Centre is not working alone. In fact, not only is it working within the wider global network of such centres, it has been specifically selected by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to coordinate its efforts with four other centres, for the betterment of the aviation industry. ICAO selected three global and two regional Space Weather Centres to work in collaboration with each other. These centres assist each other as needed, even as far as lending each other staff when certain expertise are called for. To be considered for inclusion, SANSA had to submit an application to ICAO promoting its existing Space Weather Centre, and now, whilst selected for the impressive systems it already had in place, SANSA has until 2022 to bring its centre in line with ICAO’s full requirements.

SANSA’s fellow centres are located in the USA, Europe (the Pan-European Consortium PECASUS), and the Australia, Canada, France and Japan Consortium, for the global centre, and a joint venture between Russia and China. The initial requirements to get ICAO’s approval included the need to demonstrate that the Space Weather Centre provides accurate quality information on the impacts on HF Communication, navigation applications and radiation exposure, show that it had institutional support and key partnerships in place, and that it could provide strong ICT support services capabilities.

Whilst SANSA’s centre already had a lot of credit to its name, it still has progress that it needs to achieve to meet the 2022 deadline. Lee-Anne broke it down for us: “The SANSA Space Weather Centre needs to expand from a limited-focus, one-speciality domain centre to a fully operational 24/7 centre within the next three years. The team responsible for providing space weather monitoring and know-how will need to be increased, as well as the support team. Several areas of expertise will need to be put in place, including forecast verification support and expertise in solar physics. Priority instrumentation will need to be upgraded and networks expanded to ensure that near real-time data covering the impacts of all domains will be available to the centre.”

“An expansion of SANSA’s space weather activities in the African continent is also planned as the designation as a Regional Centre comes with a responsibility for understanding the impact across the region and not only on South Africa. Several new products and services will need to be developed for the operational environment, and this will present exciting opportunities for research and development as well as for addressing the needs of the aviation users, and those of other sectors. SANSA is confident that we will make the requirements, and in so doing take a very important step on the international stage for South Africa and Africa.”

As we have said, the primary function of the Space Weather Centre is to monitor the space environment. From this data, the Centre produces bulletins, forecasts, warnings and predictions on space weather conditions for use by the various industries that it can impact. However, its operations and research go further than this: “The Centre also studies past space weather events and utilises gained knowledge to improve models, predictions and forecasting procedures; provides training on the interpretation of space weather information; conducts user needs analysis to understand what stakeholders require from space weather information; and collaborates closer with space weather researchers and engineers on new models, and growing the geophysical data that is used for predicting the space environment.” In summary, they are not only performing an essential service, but are constantly working to improve both what they do, and our understanding of the further impacts that space has on our lives.

This work is already impressive enough, but it is only one segment of a far bigger undertaking. Making use of its magnetically clean area, SANSA also produces magnetic technology products, and offers services such as landing compass calibrations, magnetic surveys, geomagnetic modelling and magnetic navigation ground support. “The Space Agency also utilises Earth observation images to provide processed information that is important for resource management and allocation, as well as disaster management services. The requirement for these services spans across all sectors and includes, for example, water resource management, and human settlements mapping,” Lee-Anne told us. In fact, the SANSA’s many services and areas of research are so varied, the best way to learn about them all is to look it up, and see a thrilling reminder that NASA are not the only space agency out there doing ground-breaking work.

Speaking of NASA, SANSA naturally collaborates closely with many other global space agencies, including the North American giant. It also works with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the German Space Agency (DLR), and has recently signed a cooperation agreement with space agencies in the UAE and Nigeria.

Dr Lee-Anne McKinnell has been with SANSA from the start. She joined the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory as a Researcher in 2004, specialising in ionospheric physics. When SANSA was established during 2010, she was appointed Acting MD of the HMO and was part of the establishment team for SANSA. In April 2011, the HMO became a part of SANSA, and she was instead made MD of SANSA’s Hermanus facility, putting her at the forefront of SANSA’s Space Science Programme, as well as tying her closely to the Agency’s history.

Lee-Anne obtained her PhD from Rhodes University, who at the time were the national experts in space physics. She described her passion for this branch of science as being inspired by “the discovery of the unknown, and the utilisation of that unknown to provide applications that help solve problems and challenges.” Continuing to talk about her passion for Space Science specifically, and how the ground-breaking work they do at SANSA can impact lives, she said: “The work that we do is unique, challenging and exciting – every day, someone is discovering something new, stretching the imagination and our abilities. So many great technologies that we cannot live without today originated from the space programme. Our daily work could influence the way the next generation live their lives, run their businesses and/or communicate.” That truly sounds like an exciting environment and industry to work in, and highlights SANSA as a place to watch. As Lee-Anne says, “We could be making a discovery or a decision or building a capability today, utilising space know-how and solving today’s space challenge, that could revolutionise the future.”