The Kenya Space Agency (KSA) has awarded Kshs. 5,000,000 to the Universities of Eldoret, Dedan Kimathi and Taita Taveta for research geared towards space weather. This is good news to the space science community and the general public who indirectly consume space products. But what is space weather? Is it relevant to a common mwananchi (citizen)?
Space weather is a general term used to refer to the environmental conditions in space as a result of the dynamic nature of the sun. The sun continually ejects materials from its surface that on interacting with the magnetic field of our planet earth can cause devastating effects on critical infrastructure not to mention the damage and harm to space-borne satellites and astronauts.
One of the harmful materials from the sun is the Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) that consists of charged electrons sometimes moving at supersonic speeds (geomagnetic storm). An increase of these electrons in the earth’s atmosphere affects the propagation of radio signals from space. This affects industries that rely on space products such as aviation, tourism as well as potential damage to electricity transmission systems that cascade to the rest of the economy. For instance, a 2017 study by Cambridge’s Judge Business School, it was revealed that space weather events can lead to a daily loss of USD41.5 billion in the US plus an additional USD7 billion loss through the international supply chain.
Therefore, funding space weather research is vital in monitoring and developing proactive measures to consequences of geomagnetic storms.
Air transport relies heavily on global navigation systems (GPS) for direction and High Frequency (HF) radio communication. A disturbance on any of these can lead to massive delays, rerouting or even grounding of planes for days. An increase in electron contents due to CMEs in the earth’s ionosphere induce errors on GPS signals and alter communication. This was the case in Sweden in 2015 when planes travelling the country and parts of Denmark were to be delayed for three days. That led to millions of losses for airlines that had to reschedule and compensate passengers in some instance.
Although, the latitude location of Kenya limits the possibility of such an event occurring, Continuous monitoring of the electron content in the earth’s ionosphere is vital in building accurate models for predicting the distribution of electron content for use in other parts of the world that we indirectly depend on. That scientifically justifies KSA’s choice of space weather funding.
Other than air transport, the tourism industry is a heavy dependant on space products, specifically navigation. Geomagnetic storms not only induce errors in our GPS readings but also cause total loss of signal in a process known as amplitude scintillation. When this occurs, flights are delayed and sometimes grounded, leading to losses in terms of hotel bookings, planned trips and subsequent compensation. This effect cascades to other players in the tourism industry such as travel insurance agencies.
Since tourism is a major import for Kenya, participating in space weather research and modelling the behaviour of the ionosphere is important on risk awareness of such dangers on our economy. Therefore, the KSA funding indirectly contributes to catastrophe awareness and preparedness as is the case with countries such as the UK that have already added space weather to its top natural disaster’s risks’ register.
The effect of a geomagnetic storm on extra-high voltage transformers (EHT) is catastrophic. A powerful storm can induce field-aligned currents on transformers leading to their partial or complete destruction. This is sometimes witnessed in high-latitude countries such as Sweden but recent cases in mid-latitude countries such as South Africa and Turkey explains why countries should take a proactive approach as envisioned by KSA. The failure in transmission grid results to immediate economic losses such as the closure of businesses. For instance, 50,000 customers were left without power in Sweden after a space weather event. This is roughly equal to the number of total households in an urban town such as Kericho. Similar events in Canada were quantified to cost USD6.5 million loss.
Recently, power blackout events have caused significant damage to households in Nairobi. However, such damages are just a fraction of a geomagnetic storm takedown of a transmission line. These losses are not only directed to utility companies, but also to insurance companies that incur losses due to business interruption payouts. Such anticipations are what has driven Bank of England’s Prudential Regulation Authority to mandate insurers on exposure stress tests on losses from space weather events. Conducting such risk analysis requires solid space weather research, assessment, modelling and prediction. That gap can be filled by the three Universities that have been awarded the grant. Indeed, space weather data already exists from dual-frequency GPS stations at Eldoret, Nairobi and Malindi.
Developing economic resilience due to damages likely caused by a geomagnetic storm relies on continuous monitoring of the earth’s ionosphere. It is impossible to take regular measurements in every part of the world. The three Universities’ research groups are likely to add data and improve the performance of empirical models for predicting and assessing the strength of space weather models such as the International Reference Ionosphere (IRI).
This is important for proposing science-based decisions and mitigation measures for users of navigation data such as airlines, tourism businesses, electricity transmission stakeholders (KPLC, KeTRACO) and surveyors, among others. Therefore, the KSA space weather research grant mirrors the applicability of space research on our daily lives.