UK Government Details Solar Storm Preparations

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

Follow on: Google +

Government discusses space weather and EMP weapons of the future

The UK government has outlined what it is doing to prepare for major solar storms.

Yesterday, the government published a response to the Defence Committee’s report on the developing threat of Electro-Magnetic Pulses (EMP). EMP can appear in the event of extreme Space Weather, as well as a result of a nuclear explosion or a specifically-developed, non-nuclear weapon.

The report stated that EMP poses “known and significant” risks to the UK infrastructure, including National Grid and satellite networks.

A response to the report was prepared by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), in consultation with the Cabinet Office, the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and the Government Office for Science. It outlines UK strategy in dealing with a possible EMP incident.

Space Pulse

The report suggested the UK needs to be prepared in case of another “Carrington event”. In 1859, the most powerful Solar Storm in recorded history resulted in widespread failure of telegraph systems and magnetic activity on earth was so high that Aurorae were seen over the Caribbean. The Carrington event has been widely seen as the “worst case scenario” of a Solar Storm.

Severe space weather would be expected to have moderate to significant effects upon a range of technologies and infrastructure, including communications systems, electronic circuits and power grids, the report acknowledged. Even if another Carrington event does not happen, smaller solar storms will inevitably take place, which could have serious consequences.

In the energy sector, the Government is working closely with industry through the Energy Emergencies Executive Committee (E3C) to establish the potential impact of severe space weather on the power grid. It is then planning to implement contingency plans and mitigation as appropriate. National Grid has already changed the design requirements for some of its transformers and increased its power reserve capacity to withstand power fluctuations.

The Government has promised to work with the private sector to improve the security and resilience of infrastructure that is most critical to the running of the country. There are also procedures in place to call upon defence forces to assist in dealing with large scale civil emergency.

Meanwhile, developments in astronomy and increased interest towards solar storms in recent years have meant that it is now possible to forecast space weather. The €2.54 million European Union SPACECAST project, led by researchers at British Antarctic Survey, will provide web-based predictions by 2014, so that satellite operators can take action to protect their satellites from space radiation damage.

Satellites orbit the earth outside the protective atmosphere, so they are especially vulnerable to solar storms. The Defence Committee wrote that “in the event of very severe space weather, even hardened satellite technology might be at risk of degradation.”

However, the committee concluded that the GPS satellites would probably survive a Carrington event. Since military satellites are already hardened against nuclear weapon effects and solar storms, that leaves communication satellites as the main potential victim of space weather.

Even though the possibility of critical satellite failure is low, the military practice “reversion techniques” such as navigating with just maps and compasses, and using high-frequency radio for communications. The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory also operates annual GPS jamming trials to test the impact of satellite failure.

Weapons of tomorrow

The EMP threat doesn’t end with solar storms. Use of the similar physical phenomena in a weapon system could create a much bigger problem. At present, only states with a known nuclear capability would be able to utilise a High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP) weapon.

However, certain countries could potentially pose a realistic threat in the future and an EMP weapon getting into the hands of terrorists would be a nightmare scenario for any government agency.

While the risk may at present be low, the potential impact of such a weapon could be devastating. The report called on the government to start defending the UK infrastructure against such a weapon as a matter of urgency.

The government, however, wants to focus on “preventing the causes of EMP, and not EMP itself”. Much of the military technology has defence mechanisms against EMP as standard, according to the government.

Against the recommendations of the report, the government chose not to nominate a single department to be responsible in the case of severe space weather. Instead, the Prime Minister will choose to assign a leader when such an event takes place.

The Cabinet Office is set to develop a National Space Security Policy, which will address all aspects of the UK’s space security interests and will be published later this year.

How much do you know about microprocessors? Take our quiz!