First 'piggyback' kit for monitoring space weather launched

December 5, 2018 by Hayley Dunning, Imperial College London
The rocket launching. Credit: Arianespace

Tiny sensors for measuring the Earth's space weather environment have launched today attached to a South Korean satellite.

On top of its own ordinary -monitoring mission, the South Korean satellite has taken on a passenger from the European Space Agency (ESA), which includes sensors built at Imperial College London.

The ESA kit, called the Service Oriented Spacecraft Magnetometer (SOSMAG), is designed to monitor weather around Earth – the interaction between the solar wind and the Earth's protective magnetic bubble. Extreme space weather events, such as from the Sun, can cause disruption to satellites and affect power grids on Earth.

Monitoring the Earth's space weather environment could enable scientists to detect these extreme celestial weather events before they reach the surface, giving critical time for preparation.

The standard SOSMAG kit is designed to be mounted on a variety of different spacecraft, so ESA hopes more 'piggyback' missions on commercial spacecraft will follow.

Dr. Jonathan Eastwood, who leads space weather research in the Department of Physics at Imperial, said: "Piggybacking on other flights enables us to distribute more instruments in more places surrounding the Earth. This will give us a fuller picture of the Earth's space weather environment than would be possible by launching separate, more expensive missions."

Credit: Imperial College London
Mini magnetometers

Scientists from the Department of Physics at Imperial, along with colleagues in Austria and Germany, built tiny magnetometers the size of pound coins that weight less than 100g for the ESA kit.

Magnetometers measure the magnetic field and any small changes in its behaviour, which is critical information for detecting space weather events.

The team at Imperial has previously built more sophisticated magnetometers for larger space missions such as the Cassini Saturn spacecraft and the upcoming Jupiter icy moons explorer (JUICE), scheduled to launch in 2022. Those magnetometers required the rest of the spacecraft to be 'magnetically clean' – to produce no of its own, no matter how small.

However, as they fly attached to commercial spacecraft, the smaller magnetometers in the ESA kit are not assured of a magnetically clean environment. Instead, for the first time the team will use multiple magnetometers of different types and sophisticated algorithms to compensate for the magnetic 'noise' created by the spacecraft.

Credit: Imperial College London

The sensors are linked to an electronics set that takes all the measurements and makes the necessary noise-removing calculations on board, creating an almost immediate signal of any space weather events.

Fast warning of any potentially harmful events

Senior Instrument Manager Patrick Brown, from the Department of Physics at Imperial, said: "This first launch is a proof of concept for the idea of a distributed sensor system – one that accounts for noise, rather than avoids it altogether. With the immediate processing of data, these systems could give fast warning of any potentially harmful events."

Many sensor systems are needed to detect space weather events, as they can come from many directions, depending on the conditions at the Sun. In future, these kinds of sensor systems could also be mounted on as small as CubeSats, miniaturised satellites, giving more coverage of the space weather environment. The Imperial team is now building a new magnetometer for the RADCUBE CubeSat which will launch in 2020.

The Imperial team has licensed its 'magnetoresistive' , and its work with ESA on the SOSMAG project marks a new type of industrial partnership, complementing the scientific collaborations that have been more usual up to now.

Explore further: ESA rocks space weather

Related Stories

ESA rocks space weather

November 7, 2018

This week, to coincide with the fifteenth annual European Space Weather Week, ESA is celebrating the dynamic phenomenon of space weather.

Video: What is space weather?

November 9, 2018

On the sidelines at European Space Weather Week 2018, in Leuven, Belgium, ESA Web TV caught up with two experts working on the fascinating science of how our Sun's raging activity affects Earth and, ultimately, the infrastructure, ...

Video: ESA's future Lagrange mission to monitor the sun

November 8, 2018

Space weather describes the changing environment throughout the Solar System, driven by the energetic and unpredictable nature of our sun. Solar wind, solar flares and Coronal Mass Ejections can result in geomagetic storms ...

Watching space weather through the MAGIC of CubeSat CINEMA

March 27, 2012

( -- A trio of CubeSats that will study the effects of space weather on the Earth’s radiation belts and magnetic field are being prepared for launch. TRIO-CINEMA is a collaboration between UC Berkeley, Kyung ...

Recommended for you

After a reset, Сuriosity is operating normally

February 23, 2019

NASA's Curiosity rover is busy making new discoveries on Mars. The rover has been climbing Mount Sharp since 2014 and recently reached a clay region that may offer new clues about the ancient Martian environment's potential ...

Study: With Twitter, race of the messenger matters

February 23, 2019

When NFL player Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice, the ensuing debate took traditional and social media by storm. University of Kansas researchers have ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.