The UK has officially opened its first space weather forecasting program this week. Space weather is a term referring to environmental changes in the solar system, especially those concerning near-Earth space.

Space weather can have huge effects on Earth, such as interrupting radio and GPS communications and disrupting power grids. Image via NASA/Royal Observatory of Belgium

Magnetic fields, radiation, particles and matter which have been ejected from the Sun interact with and can affect the Earth’s magnetosphere to produce a variety of effects. Major impacts include possible interruptions to radio communications and GPS, disruption of power grids and damage to spacecraft. The center’s aim will be to determine how solar events will affect Earth and emit forecasts on the issue. As well as giving early warning of space weather threats to critical infrastructure, the space weather center will also provide publicly available forecasts, which you can check on their website. The Met office also has a number of interesting articles about space weather in general, its potential impacts and how these impacts are measured, again, on their website.

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The center was finally launched after three years of discussion between the Met Office and its US counterpart, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service, based in Boulder, Colorado, which was keen to establish a backup for their Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC). Indeed the collaboration was crucial to the launch of the British center.

The thing is, the UK and the US space weather centers will use data obtained from the same spacecraft and will run it through the same computational models. But by doing this at a different time, forecasters will be able to compare the results and generate a more accurate picture, says Catherine Burnett, space weather programme manager at the Met Office. The UK’s centre will also use different ground-based data to hone its forecasts for the UK, she adds.