The complex of programs allowing to predict the change in the radiation environment in space hours in advance and thus protecting satellites against radiation is being developed by scientists of MSU D.V. Skobel'tsyn Institute of Nuclear Physics. It will work with data from Russian and foreign instruments recording the fluxes of energetic particles. Vladimir Kalegaev, the participant of the project, head of the MSU SINP laboratory of analysis and display of space information tells about the prospects of the innovation.
Vladimir Vladimirovich, why is it so important to monitor the radiation environment in space?
- The matter is that the conditions in the space environment are hostile to both people and electronics, primarily because the space is radioactive. It became well-known after the first flights of spacecraft, and it should be noted, this was very surprising for the researchers, although the previous hypotheses predicted such a phenomenon. In particular, it was known that there may existed some «trapping» regions around the Earth - so-called radiation belts, in which energetic particles that can provide radiation effects on living organisms and electronic equipment are always present. Experimental observation of the radiation belts was the first significant discovery of the space age.
Sun is another source of cosmic radiation. Active processes on the Sun, for example, flashes, may be accompanied by acceleration of solar energetic particles or as they are called solar cosmic rays. Under certain conditions, flux of these particles sharply increase. Thus a solar proton event happens, this is the most important and dangerous phenomenon, leading to increased radiation background in the near-Earth space. When all this was confirmed in experiments, people clearly realized that all of these and many other subtleties of space structure must be considered, if we had a task to work outside the Earth's atmosphere. You need to constantly record and analyze the flow of high energy particles or in other words the corpuscular radiation that could lead to fatal chip crashes in order to prevent the negative impact of the space environment, and it is necessary to observe the manifestations of solar activity to predict the radiological conditions to some extent. It is impossible to ensure the smooth operation of the satellites and even the International Space Station without the collection and processing of such data, without their constant analysis.
What the basic problems of radiation monitoring of the space environment are connected with?
- The main problems are connected with the fact that we can not predict the radiation situation for a long period. For example, if you observe the processes on the Sun, we can expect the arrival of solar protons during an hour after the flare. Thus, the forecast on the fluxes of energetic particles can be given no more than for an hour, and it will not be very reliable, as it is possible that the particles do not reach the regions in near-Earth space, which we are interested in. There are other methods of predicting of the radiation environment in near-Earth space - in particular, on the basis of observations of the processes on the sun. But they are not fully developed, and as a rule, not very convenient for operational tasks. Predicting of the radiation environment in space requires more robust monitoring system that can operate independently online.
What is your monitoring system like?
- We have just been doing that - creating a system optimal, in our view, for monitoring of the radiation environment in space environment as a whole - and on the desired orbit based on models and experimental data. In fact, this system will allow us to predict the space weather, if to be precise - that aspect of it which reflects the radiation effect of the space environment on the near-Earth space, technology, human activities. The system consists of several systems of programs we have developed that accumulate data coming from different Russian and foreign sources, storing the observations in space and on the Earth. It is the specialized sites and points of space data reception from satellites. Information is collected in a database. It should be updated every five minutes; the programs analyze it, integrate and give the corresponding estimates and predictions on the basis of the same model that we have created. Spacecrafts that perform measurements, data transmission on board and receive data on Earth, the systems of primary processing of information and its transferring by the Internet, the satellite monitoring system analyzing the data in near real time are involved in the technological process.
All this looks like science fiction: we can not only see, but also predict the events of a few hours, the sources of which are far away from us for millions of kilometers. The solar wind has not yet reached the Earth's orbit, and we already know its parameters and determine the Geomagnetic conditions in near-Earth space.
This is very important because the magnetic field controls the motion of charged particles, and this knowledge helps to predict radiation situation in future.
Please give a specific example of the practical application of the system that you developed. What and how do you calculate?
- The system is still being developed, however, we have carried out the continuous monitoring of radiation conditions in the near-Earth space, according to the measurements of Electro L1, Meteor M2 and Relek satellites that are running the energetic particle detectors developed in the SINP. We also continuously monitor the Sun according to the data of GOES-13 and SDO US vehicles. Information on X-ray and ultraviolet radiation from the sun obtained with these devices allows predicting radiation and geomagnetic conditions in near-Earth space. Such predictions are needed by Russian organizations that are engaged in the launch and operation of space technology. By the way, we have reached an agreement on joint activities in this area with one of them - RCC "Progress".
How should the company that owns, for example a satellite, react after receiving your warnings of adverse radiation environment?
- It is better to answer this question using a specific example. If we see there is a very powerful flash on the sun, then depending on its position on the solar disk and conditions in the heliosphere we can expect that we are waiting for a dramatic increase in the flux of solar energetic particles, which can affect the electronic equipment. It will be lucky if the victim is not a very important chip but the vital parts of the machine working in space can also be killed. And the organization that owns the device will just lose it. Such things happened from time to time. If you obtain timely warning of adverse conditions impending that can be provided by monitoring system being developed by us, so you can prepare for them: for example, disable the electronics of critical importance. Of course, the onboard equipment will remain under the influence of energetic particles even after that, but it will not work, and the likelihood that it will be somehow damaged falls sharply.
What is the current radiation environment in space? How often do you watch the extreme events?
- In the period from 2008 to 2010 we experienced a prolonged minimum of solar activity, when no major changes in the radiation situation occurred. Now the era is also quite quiet, although the solar proton events are recorded.
A very powerful emission of solar material was registered on July 23, 2012, which, however, did not affect the Earth. Several articles has already been written on this occasion, which show that, if such an event occurred in another region on the sun, we could be in big trouble. But this is just a speculation.
Are you ready to record such events?
- Of course! SINP Centre for Radiation space monitoring is already functioning. We accept and analyze information continuously throughout the day. In case of exceeding the certain critical levels, we are ready to give warning of adverse conditions in near-Earth space. On the other hand, while all this is very, very interesting from the scientific point of view, it would be better if major changes in the radiation environment in space did not happen.
No subject is considered out of political context today. Does the big policy affect the access to data obtained by American satellites?
- You know, one of the most remarkable properties of the scientific environment is that the information is used in conjunction. Because scientists always can agree. In addition, there is very much data coming from different devices. It is difficult to handle them on your own. There are also many devices - American, Russian, European, Japanese instruments are installed at numerous spacecraft operating in space. Their production spent billions of dollars. And all of the information they collect is very important. It would be quite unreasonable if countries duplicated each other in carrying out the space experiments and assembling of identical information. Its just impossible to understand for whom and for what such costs and efforts would be beneficial.
The project "The system of radiation monitoring in the surrounding space and the desired orbit" is supported by the Federal Target Program "Research and development in priority areas of scientific and technological complex of Russia for 2014-2020"