Mar 2022

Space and the Polar Regions

The aurora australis in the sky above BAS’s Halley Station in Antarctica. Photo credit: Michal Krzysztofowicz, British Antarctic Survey.

Teams that spent the winter at British Antarctic Survey’s Halley Station, engulfed in the polar night from March to October, often joked that their nearest neighbours were the astronauts on the International Space Station orbiting overhead. Although Halley is now closed during the winter, the science continues autonomously, allowing Professor Richard Horne and his team to collect space weather data and forecast events that could impact the world’s vast network of satellites.

The aurora (pictured above) is often regarded as a beautiful natural spectacle, but this electrical light show can occasionally have dramatic consequences for those on Earth. The aurora is created by high energy, charged particles accelerating along the Earth’s magnetic field, descending into the atmosphere and exciting the molecules which give off multi-coloured light. The light changes colour according to the gases in the atmosphere, with oxygen molecules creating the most commonly seen streaks of green. The best time to see the aurora is around local midnight, plus or minus two hours, and its shows appear most frequently during the summer and autumn Equinox.

In 1989 during the Great Magnetic Storm, one of the largest magnetic storms on record, the aurora was seen much closer to the Equator. Large electrical currents flowing through the aurora are constantly changing, which can put a sudden, huge load on to power grids. In 1989 this resulted in a power blackout over Quebec, Canada, that lasted for 9 hours and affected 6 million people.

The aurora’s electricity also heats the upper atmosphere, causing it to expand upwards and affect the orbit of space debris and satellites, increasing the risk of collisions. The Americans track all space debris above 10cm in size and in 1989 they lost track of the debris for several days. This situation could cause greater problems now as there are 135 million pieces of space debris that could disable a satellite. With more satellites being launched all the time, the European Space Agency says that 580 collision alerts were issued in 2020.

Monitoring space weather can help scientists predict when magnetic storms may pose a risk to power supplies in higher latitudes, including Scandinavia and even Scotland. Funded by the UK Space Agency, BAS is working on a feasibility study to track, for the first time, space debris from the Antarctic. They will also carry out research into the heating effect of the aurora, helping them to forecast potential satellite collisions in the future. Professor Horne warns that although the aurora is beautiful, it is one of the largest threats to satellite orbits.

Satellites play a pivotal role in today’s geopolitics, as well as providing a lifeline for remote Arctic communities, and navigation and intelligence for commercial operations and the military. Professor Michael Byers of the Outer Space Institute outlined the capabilities of these space-based assets, from the early search and rescue beacons of the Cospas-Sarsat programme in 1982, to the numerous polar orbit satellites that create high resolution Earth imagery, and the more recent radar satellites which can “see” through clouds, fog and, crucially, at night. New “mega-constellations” of satellites, including Starlink, OneWeb, and Telesat will soon provide a broadband service to the Poles with virtually no time delay, transforming the lives of remote communities and scientific teams operating in both the Arctic and Antarctica.

Satellite imagery is being heavily relied upon following the recent invasion of Ukraine, allowing the Ukrainians (and the West) to track the movement of Russian forces.

“I would be very surprised if Canada’s RADARSAT satellites are not providing high quality imaging of the European side of the Arctic, over the Barents Sea, Kola Peninsula, Norwegian Sea and Greenland-Iceland-UK gap. They’ll be tracking ship and submarine movements and keeping track of Russian activities to avoid an accidental escalation of the conflict beyond Ukraine,” Prof Byers said.

The Cospas-Sarsat programme is still operating, as it did during the Cold War, but if Russia were to suspend its cooperation it could still function. Much of the data for polar orbit satellites is collected at a commercial ground station in Svalbard, connected to the Norwegian mainland by two fibre-optic cables. In January Norwegian police reported that there was human interference with one of the cables thousands of feet under the ocean. Prof Byers believes the Russians may have been demonstrating that they have the capability to cut the cables, if they choose. Other ground stations around the world could offer redundancy if the Svalbard cables were severed, but if this conflict were to escalate further, Arctic assets such as this could become targets.

It’s possible that Russian attacks could even extend into space. Earth imaging satellites would be the most obvious target, but should attacks on satellites increase, the consequences in terms of space debris could be catastrophic for space assets from all nations. In November 2021 Russia tested a ground-based anti-satellite weapon on one of its own satellites, demonstrating that it has the capacity to destroy them. This attack created over 1,500 pieces of tracked space debris and forced the crew of the International Space Station, including two Russians, to take shelter in their emergency capsules.

“Space and the Arctic have been regions of incredible cooperation throughout the Cold War and until the present day. I don’t see conflict arising in space and the Arctic, but I do fear that the conflict in Ukraine could spread. The Poles are not sealed off from the rest of the world,” Prof Byers said.

Preparing astronauts for the challenges of space flight and living somewhere as remote and dangerous as an outpost on Mars involves extensive research. Professor Nathalie Pattyn was part of a team that over-wintered at the Halley Station in Antarctica in 2015/6. She was the station’s medical doctor, but also ran a European Space Agency programme using the Halley crew to investigate the human challenges of long-duration spaceflight. She says that Antarctica is the ideal analogue for long duration isolation and confinement during space flight, helping researchers to understand the risks, pressures and challenges for astronauts, from both a physiological and psychological perspective.

As a research environment it is much cheaper than conducting experiments in space, and there is a much larger data set of participants. In an average Antarctic summer approximately 5,000 people are based in Antarctica, reducing to just 1,000 during the winter. In comparison, just 20 people from all nations travel into space each year. In terms of cost, the price per person of transporting and supporting an individual in Antarctica is £10,000 - £50,000, but space logistics increase that cost to between £500,000 and £50 million per person.

The French-Italian Concordia base in Antarctica is used as one of the European Space Agency (ESA) analogues for isolation and confinement studies. Past simulation experiments where people lived in a tin can in a capital city for up to 500 days with a panic button and lifesaving equipment just 20m away, did not have the same effect as people that are locked in a facility that is completely out of reach. Running this research in Antarctica allows a level of risk that wouldn’t be allowed in a purely scientific experiment.

While the ESA runs the largest programme for human factors research for spaceflight in Antarctica, other nations including the USA and Australia (which partner with NASA) and Japan also use their Antarctic bases for this purpose. Although China doesn’t communicate on the topic, it has invested significantly in both its space and Antarctic programmes so Prof Pattyn thinks that the two must interact.

She believes that space flight can learn a lot from Antarctic deployments. It could be argued that the International Space Station is better equipped for emergencies as it has an evacuation vehicle available at all times, which is not always the case in Antarctic bases. There is also just one medical doctor in winter bases covering all subjects, so telemedicine support is essential, just as it is in space.

“Very pragmatically, as a medical doctor, if you have a serious medical issue that I can’t solve in a remote base with telemedicine support, it will reach its own positive or negative conclusion. There have been cases of people becoming suicidal over-wintering and it is a nightmare for all involved. Psychological issues may not be easy to deal with and one of the biggest, underestimated variables is the impact it has on the rest of the crew,” she says.

The biggest difference between teams in space and Antarctica is the selection of personnel. Considering the cost and risk of sending people into space, agencies select very thoroughly from a huge recruitment pool. National Antarctic programmes don’t have so much choice and, despite stringent restrictions on previous medical history, sometimes people that could present a risk are still sent South.

“Antarctica is an undervalued resource for any activities underpinning exploration. It forces health professionals to do more with less and can prompt real innovation,” Prof Pattyn says.


James Gray MP – Are you aware of any science that actually happens at the Chinese-Icelandic Aurora Observatory, or is it a geopolitical concrete block in Iceland?

RH – I’m not aware of much science that has come out of the Icelandic station. The location offers some interesting opportunities which we have explored in the past, but I’m not aware of anything coming out of that base at this time.

Mark Garnier MP – I must declare an interest as Vice Chair of the APPG for Space and Chair of the advisory board of the Shetland Space Centre. We’re looking to have in the region of 30,000 satellites in space and it is getting congested, can these satellites survive space weather events?

RH – We have an 11 year solar cycle and disruption tends to go with that solar cycle. None of the satellites that have been launched in recent years have been tested by a severe space weather event. We hope that they have been designed to withstand these events, but we need more data on space weather in certain regions to be able to forecast. Space weather is part of the UK’s national security risk assessment. On 3 February, SpaceX launched 49 satellites, of which 40 of them came down due to a weak magnetic storm at an altitude of 200km (some also had a technical glitch). OneWeb, partially owned by the British government, is launching them up to 1,200km which is much higher than usual, and we don’t have much data on space weather at that altitude so there are lots of risks and unknowns. It’s been 33 years since the last great storm and the next peak in solar activity is expected in 2025 so we’re working on improving our risk assessments.

James Gray MP – I’m concerned about the collapse of the Arctic Council, and if both cables from Svalbard were severed what would the consequences be?

MB – We could manage without the cables from Svalbard, a lot of the data that is used for science could be downloaded to disks and flown out and there would only be a small delay. For military purposes there are other ground stations, so there is redundancy there. I salute the other Arctic Council members for suspending the political operations of the Council, it offers the best chance for it to come back to life after this crisis. Most of the Arctic Council’s function is for science and I’m sure the collaborations between scientists are continuing.