The auroras are beautiful manifestations of the stream of charged particles emitted by the Sun. But the Sun's plasma eruptions are more than a natural spectacle in the polar regions; they can also interfere with satellites. In extreme cases, space weather may even affect infrastructure on Earth. The Institute for Solar-Terrestrial Physics at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) studies space weather and conducts research to enable scientists to better understand and predict its effects. The DLR institute, which is located in Neustrelitz, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, was inaugurated on 26 May 2021.
"Our high-tech society is in great need of protection. We must take precautions to avoid the negative effects of space weather on our infrastructure on the ground, in the air, and in Earth orbit," says Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla, Chair of the DLR Executive Board. "By founding this new institute in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, we are contributing to the creation of a national space weather service."
The DLR Institute for Solar-Terrestrial Physics conducts fundamental and applied research with the aim of protecting technological infrastructure in space and on Earth against damage from space weather. A space weather service for this purpose is currently in development.
DLR institute to have 80 employees
The new institute is located on DLR's Neustrelitz site, which was established in 1992. In addition to space weather, research at the site focuses on satellite data reception, satellite remote sensing, navigation, as well as maritime traffic and security. The Institute for Solar-Terrestrial Physics currently has around 50 employees and is set to increase to 80 in the long term.
"The German Aerospace Center is a flagship institution for cutting-edge research not just in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, but across all of Germany," says Bettina Martin, Minister for Education, Science and Culture in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. "The new Institute for Solar-Terrestrial Physics will prove a great asset to the profile of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania as a scientific location. The federal state is providing approximately 10 million euros in funding for this important development and will invest a further 670,000 euros per year for material expenses and operating costs."
Severe solar storms breach Earth's protective magnetic field
Radiation and plasma bursts from the Sun, also known as solar storms, vary in intensity and frequency. Earth's magnetic field generally offers protection against solar storms. However, certain solar events, such as solar flares or coronal mass ejections throw electromagnetic radiation or vast quantities of ionised particles into space. These sometimes have enough energy to overcome Earth's protective shield.
"Space weather and its consequences are not restricted to space. Depending on the intensity, they can also disrupt electricity supplies and radio communications on Earth," says Thomas Jarzombek, Federal Government Coordinator of German Aerospace Policy. "We are aware of the economic damage that could potentially be caused by space weather and take the threat seriously. That is why I am delighted that this new institute is being set up in Neustrelitz and welcome the important contribution that its scientific research will make towards protecting society."
Our modern world is so reliant on high-tech infrastructure that a severe solar storm could lead to significant economic damage and satellite failures. Electrical supply networks could malfunction. The onboard electronics and navigation systems used by aircraft, ships and vehicles could also be dangerously disrupted. Solar storms could hamper the transmission of television, radio and mobile phone signals. Countermeasures could be deployed in time with sufficient advance warning; nowadays, satellites are temporarily switched off when possible interference is forecast. During solar storms, passenger planes that are routed over the polar regions fly at lower altitudes or change course altogether.
A better understanding of complex relationships
At the new DLR Institute for Solar-Terrestrial Physics, researchers will focus on the magnetosphere-ionosphere-thermosphere (MIT) system. This system relates to regions of Earth's atmosphere with special properties and interactions that are influenced by solar storms. A better understanding of the complex interrelationships here will help ensure that the negative consequences of space weather can be predicted and avoided.
There is a long tradition of ionospheric research in Neustrelitz. The city has been home to receiving antennas since 1913, initially for the experimental radio station of the Imperial Telegraph Research Office (Das kaiserliche Telegraphenversuchsamt). The signal had a reach of up to 100 kilometres – well into the ionosphere. Up in the ionosphere, gas is electrically charged (ionised) due to solar radiation and acts as a kind of mirror for radio waves.