South Africa’s Space Weather coup eclipsed by Schweizer-Reneke

South Africa scored a major scientific coup on Monday 14th January 2019, but it appears the Hacks of Habit aka local media thought stories about DJs being naked or some kids in a classroom were more important.

Now don’t get me wrong, the Schweizer-Reneke story about four black kids perched at the back of the class separate and unequal is unforgivable.

At the same time, it was also a useful distraction for habitual Hacks who apparently think science stories are far too complex to think about while contorting yourselves into whirling pools of screaming self-righteousness.

And how shareable on social media to boot? So many media outlets happily shared the picture, although it was quite clear those in the picture were far too young to be scrutinised. Technically this broke the Media Code, but that’s another story.

A quick scan of local media headlines on the day showed just how utterly landlubbered and bereft of imagination these gatekeepers of self-importance were. The only real coverage was on ITWEB, some government websites and Engineering News.

That was about it for headlines.

The rest thundered off into an intellectual dead-end, trying to outdo each other to get exclusives about a story that everyone already had so that the huffing and puffing lower middle class could exhaust itself and its expensive data exchanging redundancies on the social media platform of choice.

How pathetically South African.

The North West town is named after a Swiss man called Reneke by the way.

The hullabaloo overshadowed a moment of national interest. The really important story on Monday was the one about the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) being selected by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to become the designated regional provider of space weather information to the entire aviation sector in Africa. Almost a billion people. Forget Schweizer-Reneke and its Swissness, population “a few”.

This is much bigger news for South Africa than a North West junior school, but it involves real science and therefore the average South African editor is immediately, and apparently, disadvantaged.

SANRA’s windfall is our national pride, people. It means all aircraft flying anywhere across Africa will now rely on SANSA for space weather information.

All pilots know that the usual terrestrial weather systems are crucial to being able to take-off and land. Also crucial, is the various radio/radar/GPS/GNSS systems on board that allow pilots to navigate and communicate.

SANSA is to partner with one of the ICAO’s three global space weather centres, Pan-European Consortium for Aviation Space Weather User Services or PECASUS. The only other is controlled by Russia and China which may decide to use the information, let’s just say, not in the interests of science in Africa.

PECASUS falls under ICAO, the international Aviation organisation. The Department of Science and Technology issued a statement about this on Sunday afternoon which trumpeted the advantages for the country.

“South Africa’s designation as a regional space weather information provider will grow the science, engineering, technology and innovation sector, offering opportunities to develop scarce skills and increase national research output, while ensuring that usable products are generated from the knowledge,” it said.

SANSA open day.

Space weather can be pretty grim. Huge surges in sunspot activity send radio waves streaming out across the solar system, hammering earth. These can be extremely violent.

These were first really understood many years ago, in 1859. That’s when an amateur astronomer called Richard Carrington climbed up into the loft of his country estate, opened the dome and pointed his telescope at the sun.

He was keeping tabs on large sun spots, when suddenly two gave off what he called “… intensely bright and white light” and after five minutes they vanished.

That night, telegraph communications across the world failed. Sparks were reported from some, others set papers on fire and auroras were experienced all over the nighttime sky, glowing brightly. Birds woke up believing it was dawn these were so bright.

This was known as the ‘Carrington Event’.

In 1972, a similar event knocked out AT&T systems in the USA and led to the company redesigning its entire subsea cable operation. In March 1989, a powerful solar flare set off power blackout in Canada that left six million people without electricity.

Then in 2000, the Bastille Day event occurred – July 14th to be exact. This registered X5 on the solar flare scale (yes there is one) and caused satellites to short circuit, while some radio stations stopped broadcasting.

Then in October 2003 our nearest star (yes, the sun) unleashed a hefty uppercut across the solar system. This made the Bastille Day event seem insignificant. The spacecraft measuring flares blew up, and eventually all sensors topped out at X28, but later it appeared the flare actually reached a peak strength of X45.

©NOAA

So you begin to appreciate South Africa’s importance in aviation. We are the only country in Africa with space weather capabilities, so it makes sense for SANSA and PECASUS to work together for the good of aviation on the continent.

“The country’s space science programme is feeding the knowledge economy and placing the national system of innovation at the centre of South Africa’s developmental agenda,” the department added. 

Just in case you think this space weather thing is not serious, a note from my Aviation files will serve as a warning.

“Space weather refers to the conditions on the Sun and in the solar wind, magnetosphere, ionosphere, and thermosphere that can influence the performance and reliability of space-borne and ground-based technological systems and can endanger human life or health.”

Modern aviation now relies on flights over the Arctic, whereas during the Cold War, China and Russia did not. But Space Weather affects the poles far more than anywhere else, so it’s even more important to watch this phenomenon now. At the same time, each burst of energy from the sun can impact the earth based on when these electromagnetic rays strike the globe.

The effects include loss of HF radio transmission and satellite navigation signals, navigation system disruptions and general avionics errors. Flight planning includes space weather for a reason.

So as you prepare for your next flight over the equator and into Europe or Dubai, to catch the next flight out to San Francisco, consider the work SANSA will be doing with PECASUS and NOAA.

Makes me proud.

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