The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has designated three global space weather service centres to assist aviation with observations and forecasts of near-Earth space and atmospheric conditions during strong solar storms. One of these centres will be set up by the Pan-European Consortium for Aviation Space Weather User Services (PECASUS) under the leadership of the Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI). With its many years of experience in observing and modelling ionospheric plasma, the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) will provide data on the current state of the ionosphere. These data are used by PECASUS to provide the aviation industry with information about possible disruptions to satellite navigation and communications systems.
"We are particularly delighted that DLR’s expertise will help us to develop a global space weather service to support the aviation industry," says DLR Project Manager Jens Berdermann. He works at the Institute of Communications and Navigation and oversees the development of DLR's Ionosphere Monitoring and Prediction Center (IMPC) in Neustrelitz, where experts are researching the causes and effects of space weather to provide specific information about the current state of the ionosphere.
Space weather poses a threat to aviation
Solar storms or flares can cause disruptions that can affect or even damage technical systems in Earth orbit. Depending on the extent of such damage, this can mean the failure of navigation and communications systems. This, in turn, may affect operations in civil aviation. The impact of space weather on air travel has increased since the opening of the northern polar routes in the late 20th century. In addition to compromising navigational and communications instruments, strong solar storms can increase the radiation levels in the atmosphere at flying altitude. This has an additional effect on passengers travelling in commercial aircraft.
The aviation organisation ICAO has responded to the increased risk by including warnings about space weather hazards in its aviation regulations. These notes include information about the prevailing and prospective conditions over a 24-hour period, which will be provided to pilots and air traffic management centres as briefings in real time. The PECASUS consortium has now started to provide the ICAO with this information. “DLR is predestined to make a crucial contribution to this, as next to its aforementioned expertise it participates in the design of the navigation procedures. By combining these two competencies, the content of the information as well as the reactions to it can be coordinated in the best possible way,” says Christoph Günther, head of the Institute of Communications and Navigation.
The PECASUS Consortium
The Pan-European Consortium for Aviation Space Weather User Services (PECASUS) offers comprehensive technical and scientific expertise by bringing together leading European space weather institutions from the following countries: Finland (coordinator), UK, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Austria and Cyprus. The PECASUS Consortium was certified for operational services in February 2018 by space weather experts.
Forthcoming Institute of Space Weather at the DLR site in Neustrelitz
The complex monitoring and study of space weather in all its many different manifestations and areas of impact – for instance on satellite technology, aviation, telecommunications and navigation – is an important national task. A new institute is now being set up for this purpose, based on existing structures, at the site in Neustrelitz. The aim of the Institute is to lay the foundations for protecting people and technical facilities from the effects of space weather. To this end, the experts are developing methods and tools for understanding, modelling and predicting space weather and its impact on Earth and near-Earth space. Using the findings they will develop methods for providing a wide range of ionospheric correction methods, status information and warnings to users in a timely manner. Among other things, the new institute will contribute towards the further development of space weather products and services for aviation in accordance with current requirements, thus providing the ICAO with reliable support.