Science and Technology Facilities Council
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Breakthrough in STEREO mission could help prevent satellite damage

Scientists working on NASA’s twin STEREO spacecraft have made a significant breakthrough that could play a major role in protecting satellites from the damage caused by solar explosions, known as Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs).

CMEs are powerful sudden eruptions of plasma and magnetic energy from the Sun’s outer atmosphere that when directed towards Earth, can have damaging effects. Protecting satellites from these potential negative consequences is vital for preventing disruption to everything from GPS to power stations.

Now scientists using data from the twin STEREO spacecraft have shown that these unique 3D images enable a CME to be tracked all the way to the Earth and predict its arrival at least 24 hours beforehand. This allows more time for preventative measures to be put in place to minimise the damage caused to satellites and the resulting disruption to technologies.

A paper led by Dr Chris Davis, of the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC’s) Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) due to be published in Geophysical Research Letters explains this has been made possible because of the UK-built Heliospheric Imagers (hi-tech cameras) onboard the twin STEREO spacecraft that view the space between the Sun and the Earth, using wide-angle telescopes.

“The images taken from the UK-built Heliospheric Imagers represent a major step forward in predicting the arrival of these solar storms at Earth” said Dr Chris Davis. “These results demonstrate that we are now able to predict a storm’s arrival at Earth with over twenty-four hours notice. That’s sufficient time for satellite operators and astronauts on the International Space Station to minimise their risks”.

Angelos Vourlidas, project scientist for the SECCHI imaging suite aboard STEREO said; “The larger the separation between the STEREO spacecraft, the larger the structures we can examine.”

Notes to Editors

The NASA STEREO mission was launched in October 2006. Two identical probes are now in solar orbit, one flying ahead of the Earth and one behind the Earth, from where they look back at the Sun and the space between the Sun and the Earth. This two-platform view allows 3D images of the Sun to be produced. However, it is the RAL-led Heliospheric Images on STEREO that look at the space between the Sun and the Earth, using wide-angle telescopes. They are being used to detect the CMEs as they propagate through interplanetary space. In addition to leading the HI instruments, all of the imaging instruments on board the two STEREO spacecraft use a novel CCD-based camera system developed at RAL. For more information visit 

Images from the SECCHI (Sun Earth Connection Coronal and Heliospheric Investigation) telescopes on each spacecraft are being combined to create the 3D views. The detectors for all the STEREO cameras were built at RAL. The HI cameras on SECCHI were built at the University of Birmingham.

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Lucy Stone
Press Officer
STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory

Tel: 01235 445627

Further Information

Science and Technology Facilities Council
The Science and Technology Facilities Council ensures the UK retains its leading place on the world stage by delivering world-class science; accessing and hosting international facilities; developing innovative technologies; and increasing the socio-economic impact of its research through effective knowledge exchange partnerships.

The Council has a broad science portfolio including Astronomy, Particle Physics, Particle Astrophysics, Nuclear Physics, Space Science, Synchrotron Radiation, Neutron Sources and High Power Lasers. In addition the Council manages and operates three internationally renowned laboratories:

- The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxfordshire
- The Daresbury Laboratory, Cheshire
- The UK Astronomy Technology Centre, Edinburgh

The Council gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institute Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), the European organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO) and the European Space Agency (ESA). It also contributes money for the UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Australia and in Chile, and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility, which includes the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory.

The Council is a partner in the UK space programme, coordinated by the British National Space Centre. 

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