SA grows capacity in space weather monitoring for global aviation sector

South Africa is looking to take on a leading role in the international space weather monitoring community, as it moves to become a key provider of space weather information to the global aviation sector for the African region.

Dr Phil Mjwara, Director-General in the Department of Science and Technology (DST), this week paid a visit to the Space Weather Regional Warning Centre for Africa.

Based in Hermanus in the Western Cape, the SANSA facility is the only such centre on the continent, and has been designated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as one of two regional centres around the world that will monitor space weather for the global aviation sector, providing crucial safety-related services such as solar storm forecasts and warnings.

This designation followed an extensive assessment process involving three global centres (those of the USA, a pan-European consortium, and an Australia, Canada, France and Japan consortium) and two regional centres (the South African centre and a joint Russia-China centre).

South Africa’s space weather centre now has three years in which to meet the ICAO’s requirements for the country to successfully maintain its new designation. The global centres are already delivering on the ICAO requirements, while the regional centres have until 2022 to build the needed capacity.

Touring the facility, Dr Mjwara said the government was extremely excited by the recent developments.

“The proposal to build SANSA’s space weather centre capacity has reached us and we are considering it; and we are almost certain that we will be funding the centre to ensure it is able to meet the requirements to become a fully accredited centre,” Dr Mjwara told the media contingent who accompanied him on the tour.

“In a couple of years, the aviation industry will have to possess information on space weather before flying. As government, we can see the value not only from a scientific perspective but from the economic perspective as well, as the value this brings to society.”

Space weather events are capable of seriously disrupting modern technologies such as satellites, GPS, power grids, and navigation and communication systems. High-frequency radio communication infrastructure, as well as ground and air-based navigation systems, can be disabled or knocked out entirely by solar storms, while radiation exposure poses a hazard for airline crew and passengers, especially during long-haul flights.

To mitigate the risks to aircraft and airports, the ICAO has recommended that the aviation sector familiarise itself with the potential impacts of space weather events, and ensure that space weather information forms part of all flight plans in the near future. The organisation has made it a regulation that this information be filtered down to aircraft crew and cabin members.

As South Africa prepares to meet the ICAO requirements, plans are under discussion to establish a 24/7 operation, expand the physical space in which the space weather centre currently operates, and train more people – in particular space weather forecasters.

“We will need to grow the capacity that we have for doing this,” said Dr Lee-Anne McKinnell, Managing Director of SANSA. “As space weather forecasting is a skill learned on the job, we will be implementing a training programme and rolling out a quality management system.

“The great thing about South Africa is that we are right there, learning with our international partners, influencing the decisions that are being made,” Dr McKinnell said, adding that the ICAO recommendation would impact every flight to and from Africa.

SANSA has also partnered with the Pan-European Consortium for Aviation Space weather User Services (PECASUS), a nine-country collaboration, to provide the ICAO with space weather information for the African region. This collaboration will connect the South African space industry to international models and expertise.

“We believe this is something that can add to the value proposition for space science and technology in Africa. Everything you see here [in the space weather centre] is underpinned by the excellent research capacity in South Africa. SANSA has identified where the gaps are, and we will focus on that,” said Dr McKinnell.

SANSA CEO, Dr Val Munsami, added that there were plans to establish a research chair dedicated to space weather research under the DST’s South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI).

“This will be an internationally recognised expert who will help build capacity by training master’s and PhD students in the field. So, we have decided to upskill around this particular centre, which is also very significant,” said Dr Munsami.

Within the country, SANSA is working closely with the Air Traffic Aviation Service, the South African Weather Service, the Civil Aviation Authority and other partners to implement the ICAO recommendations for Africa’s aviation sector.

Issued by SANSA and the Department of Science and Technology

For more information, contact Catherine Webster at cwebster@sansa.org.za or Veronica Mohapeloa at veronica.mohapeloa@dst.gov.za

Catherine Webster
cwebster@sansa.org.za