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Thursday, January 10, 2008

STP in the Times Higher

The second article in the new-look Times Higher Education revolves around comments made by one of my friends and colleagues:

As a space scientist at Lancaster University, Jim Wild is an expert in the field, and his enthusiasm for his research is clear.

But he is worried about the future following the announcement of funding cuts that affect all ground-based facilities for solar-terrestrial physics in the UK.

Jim goes on to get to the crux of the matter of why this is such a massive blow:

"Although satellites provide invaluable measurements, they are too few in number to provide complete coverage. It's like trying to forecast the weather here on Earth with only a handful of weather stations.

"To complement the satellite measurements, we need ground-based instruments such as imagers, radars and magnetic field sensors.

"This is an area in which the UK is world-leading, but the cuts and the closure of our facilities effectively means the withdrawal of the UK from this area of space research.

"They haven't said they're going to kill off any of the spacecraft, but there's really only one mission at the moment and it's within a year of the end of its life.

"When that dies naturally, they'll have killed all the ground-based facilities, and we will have no tools left and that will be it."

The satellite Jim is talking about is the highly successful Cluster mission which is already living on borrowed time.

I am sure that STFC will argue that there is a brand new STP satellite that has only just started: STEREO.

This is only partially true, STEREO is focused more on the sun and solar wind, it does not look at what happens when the solar wind hits the magnetosphere which is where most of the societal and economic impact of space weather is felt. It's great science but provides only one end of the process; if you really want to know what is going on you need the other end. That means many more satellites around the Earth and (even better) lots of ground based monitoring stations to get a global picture of what is going on.

To expand on Jim's quote about predicting the weather with with a handful of weather stations, I once heard an American colleague say that trying to study space weather with satellites alone is like trying to forecast the weather across the United States with a handful of thermometers, and you don't know exactly where they are!

The kicker to the piece arrives at the bottom and it is this point we need to get across (emphasis mine):

"The feeling is that this is the death of solar-terrestrial physics in the UK, at a time when the rest of the world is getting into it in a big way.

"We cover an awful lot of the Arctic and Scandinavian area with UK instruments, and we're effectively pulling out and thumbing our nose to our partners and saying we don't do this any more."

Sadly the on-line article does not have the very nice photo of the aurora that the hard-copy has with the article (THE, No. 1827, 10-16 January 2008, pg. 10).

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