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This article was published on May 27, 2024

Airbus to build satellite that will predict the northern lights

Vigil will forecast solar storms from a point in space 150 million kilometres away from Earth

Airbus to build satellite that will predict the northern lights

The European Space Agency has hired Airbus to build a space satellite. It will forecast solar storms like the one that caused the biggest northern lights display in over 20 years this May.

The satellite, dubbed Vigil, will sit at the so-called L5 point, some 150 million kilometres from Earth. From here it will view the Sun from the side, observing activity on the surface of the Sun four to five days before it becomes visible from Earth

“Vigil will drastically improve both the lead time of space weather warnings as well as their level of detail from its unique vantage point in deep space,” said ESA director general Josef Aschbacher.

Solar storms occur when the Sun emits enormous bursts of energy in the form of solar flares and coronal mass ejections. These send streams of charged particles into space. There, they slam into Earth’s magnetic field, mix with gases in our atmosphere, and spark the aurora.

Solar storms can be spectacular. But they can also cause serious disruptions to telecommunications, satellites, airplanes, and power grids.

“Vigil will be Europe’s first 24/7 operational space weather satellite, providing valuable time to protect critical infrastructure such as power grids or mobile communication networks on Earth,” said Aschbacher.

The solar storm forecaster will also protect valuable satellites in Earth orbit. This includes the International Space Station. It may also protect future astronauts on the Moon and Mars.

ESA has given Airbus €340mn to develop Vigil. That’s a big sum, but pales in comparison to the cost of damage from a big solar storm.

Depending on the intensity, “damage estimates range from multiple billions up to three trillion euro in case of an event of comparable magnitude as the biggest one we know, the 1859 Carrington Event,” explained Holger Krag, head of the Space Safety Programme at ESA.

Vigil, weighing just over two tonnes, will carry a total of six instruments, four of which Europe will develop. The spacecraft will launch into space on an Ariane 6 rocket, scheduled for 2031.

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