Trinity team joins satellite solar study


THERE IS Irish involvement in a weather satellite of a different kind set for launch next week. It won’t deliver forecasts on our sodden conditions: it goes into orbit to study solar storms.

The European Space Agency’s Proba-2satellite is set for launch at 2am Irish time next Monday from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Siberia.

It carries a number of experiments including the latest space camera, the first time a CMOS active pixel sensor has gone into orbit, according to Trinity College Dublin’s Dr Peter Gallagher.

He leads the solar physics group at Trinity which joined with main satellite contractor, the Royal Observatory of Belgium, to participate in the Proba-2project.

The Trinity group wrote software for two experiments, Swap and Lyra, which will monitor solar activity and watch for the formation of solar storms, he said yesterday.

These are not a matter of idle scientific curiosity. Solar storms cause serious problems for electricity companies.

A big solar storm left six million people in the dark in Quebec after it blew a transformer on March 13th, 1989. It only took 90 seconds to knock out all the power but more than nine hours to get it going again. The storms come from solar flares, huge eruptions that occur on the sun’s surface particularly when there are sunspots about. The flares can squash the magnetic fields that surround the earth and send trillions of watts of power down into the atmosphere.

“These instruments will enable us to study the detailed physics of solar eruptions as never before, and ultimately enable us to make more accurate forecasts of their arrival at earth,” Dr Gallagher said.

The Science Gallery at Trinity has planned a free public “launch party” for next Monday from 9.30-11.30am. Astro-expert and broadcaster Leo Enright will MC the event, with organisers keeping their fingers crossed the launch much earlier that morning will have come off as planned.

“It is not meant to be astrophysicists talking to astrophysicists,” said the gallery’s Enja Ekelof. “We want it to be a celebration.”