Satellites improve lives

This talk was given in association with the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory


The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) is one of the national scientific research laboratories in the UK operated by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). It began as the Rutherford High Energy Laboratory, merged with the Atlas Computer Laboratory in 1975 to create the Rutherford Lab; then in 1979 with the Appleton Laboratory to form the current laboratory.

It is located on the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus at Chilton near Didcot in Oxfordshire, United Kingdom. It has a staff of approximately 1,200 people who support the work of over 10,000 scientists and engineers, chiefly from the university research community. The laboratory’s programme is designed to deliver trained manpower and economic growth for the UK as the result of achievements in science.

Most of the speakers who take part in the talks normally work at RAL or have a working association with it. There are lots and lots of large experiments that help look at all sorts of things from the very small building blocks of matter to the vast scales of astronomy and the Rutherford Appleton Lab is part of the whole Harwell campus.

The campus has many other organizations on site, including the satellite applications catapult and in celebration of world space week RAL is working in partnership with the satellite applications catapult to give a series of short talks about the different ways that satellites effect and improve our lives and about the different people who work with satellites

The speakers were Mark, Sarah Cheesebrough and Joe from the satellite applications catapult and Caroline, from rail space to talk about themselves, their career paths and how satellites affect our lives.

The following are notes from the on-line lecture. Even though I could stop the video and go back over things there are likely to be mistakes because I haven’t heard things correctly or not understood them. I hope the speakers and my readers will forgive any mistakes and let me know what I got wrong.

Sarah, Catapult

Sarah is an Earth observation specialist at satellite applications catapult and works with satellite images to create data informed solutions to explore and solve real world problems.

Sarah’s talk included a bit about how we get information from satellites and about broad application case studies.


Sarah has a pretty amazing job that partly consists of looking at lots of pretty pictures. But there is more to it than that. It’s analytical and requires a lot of knowledge of computers.

She considers her job to be very exciting especially as more satellites are being launched.

She explained that her talk would be about how we get information from satellites and also some of their applications. It also included links to how we could find out more

She also explained her career path because she felt it might be of interest to some of the audience who are working on their own career path.

Below are some links that show satellite orbiting the Earth

There are many types of satellites, which we use in our daily lives. From navigation satellites to satellites sending signals to our phones and TVs.

Sarah’s area of interest are observation satellites. These are ones which are looking back down at Earth from space and you can get information about the surface of the Earth, as well as the atmosphere.

Satellites come in a whole range of shapes and sizes. From the enormous satellites launched by NASA that you probably think of when you think of a satellite to satellites which are the sizes of loaves of bread and shoe boxes. All of them can give you a great deal of information.

The graphic shown in the video below show some of the satellites around in 2015 but there are considerably more now.

The video shows how the different types of satellite orbit which allow lots of different areas of the Earth to be imaged.

Currently there are companies now who are claiming to be able to image the same place on the Earth four times every day at resolutions of 30 centimetres. So, if you wanted to you could get a picture of your house or your car four times a day, across the different types of wavelengths. Children learn all about the electromagnetic spectrum in secondary school (11 to 19 year olds)


The electromagnetic spectrum are waves with a range of frequencies (the spectrum) of electromagnetic radiation and their respective wavelengths and photon energies. All the different waves are transverse (their vibration direction is 90o to the propagation direction) and they all travel at the same speed in a vacuum (3 x 108 m/s)


The electromagnetic spectrum covers electromagnetic waves with frequencies ranging from below one hertz to above 1025 hertz, corresponding to wavelengths from thousands of kilometres down to a fraction of the size of an atomic nucleus. This frequency range is divided into separate bands, and the electromagnetic waves within each frequency band are called by different names; beginning at the low frequency (long wavelength) end of the spectrum these are: radio waves, microwaves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays at the high-frequency (short wavelength) end. The electromagnetic waves in each of these bands have different characteristics, such as how they are produced, how they interact with matter, and their practical applications. The limit for long wavelengths is the size of the universe itself, while it is thought that the short wavelength limit is in the vicinity of the Planck length. Gamma rays, X-rays, and high ultraviolet are classified as ionizing radiation as their photons have enough energy to ionize atoms, causing chemical reactions.

The electromagnetic spectrum is continuous meaning there are no breaks between the different types of wave. In fact, there can be a crossover. For example, X-rays and gamma rays have wavelengths and frequencies in common. The differentiation between the them is due to the manner in which they are produced.

Satellites can take pictures of the Earth using visible light giving the sort of images you’d expect with a normal camera, but they can also produce images using the ultraviolet and infra-red (thermal) bands of the electromagnetic spectrum.


Some satellites can also use radar and microwaves (types of radio wave) to give information about the surface of the Earth.

Essentially, you get a whole range of different kinds of images from the satellites, which allow a great deal of information about the Earth and space to be gleaned. So, you can imagine if we’re getting all of these different wavelengths over each area of the Earth regularly, daily or weekly, then we’re going to be able get a lot of information from the satellites in terms of applications on the ground, and how we can use this for improving lives.

Sarah talked about some of the satellites which she or people in her team are working on at the moment and she discussed some of the techniques they use.


The uses of satellites are almost endless and with more and more of them being launched we will be getting information and images more quickly. This will be a bit of a challenge when some of these images can be up to four gigabytes and millions of these are being received every day.

It’s a huge amount of data to deal with so there’s a lot of research in the area around cloud computing and the automation of workflow.

How we can get all this imagery processed and into useful information as quickly and as effectively as possible. So, there are four areas which the group is actively working on and you can see them in the above image.

The first is monitoring bridges. Satellites can be used to detect changes in the region of millimetres on hard structures such as bridges. This will enable engineers to decide whether a bridge needs extra inspections to keep it safe or locate potential faults that could cause problems later.


The above image shows artificially coloured red and green regions on the bridge. These show different movements on the bridge which are just millimetres of change. This is really exciting for people working in the sector, and the same technology can be applied to other areas, such as dams. It will enable engineers to predict when a dam is going to fail.

By looking at satellite data every few days engineers can be updated on how sound a structure is.


The satellite image above is looking at an oil tanker which is permanently located off the coast of Yemen due to the political situation in the area. The tanker isn’t being maintained and its condition is deteriorating. So, there’s a lot of people who are worried about what happens if this tanker leaks. Where is it going to leak? How quickly will the oil spread and which areas are at the most risk based on things such as the ocean currents.

Catapult have been working with NGOs (Non-governmental organisations) and companies in the UK to figure out how likely, when and where, the tanker is to leak and how far the leak will move.

Images from satellites can be used for modelling purposes to figure out where the tanker could move to and track any oil leaks. This will aid with any clean-up missions if you have oil tankers which leak oil into the water.


The images above show the satellite has been used to track deforestation. This is quite an extreme example and you can see the difference between 1990 (above left) and 2010 (above right).

Satellites not only see the deforestation but can see what sort of crops are being grown in place of the trees. Something governments are interested in.

Satellites can be used to monitor crops and enable the farmer to know the best possible time for harvest and how good the harvest is likely to be. This is important for supermarkets as they don’t want to be out of a product that consumers want.

Of course, ethically, we don’t want to be buying products from areas where deforestation has happened. Satellites can give us information about supply chains and help us buy products that we know have been produced sustainably.

The final image shows a project that Sarah is working on in Fiji. It is looking at coastal change and climate change resilience in these small Pacific nations such as Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. It is vital as these countries are experiencing negative impacts of climate change such as cyclones and rising sea levels.


Increased sea levels mean that villages are having to be physically moved.

Information from satellites are helping to identify which villages might need to be moved in the next 10 years or so.

They are identifying which village is the most vulnerable and equally, where is the most sensible place to move it to where it’s not going to be impacted by landslides, or by any other natural disasters.

Sarah’s work involves image processing, machine learning, artificial intelligence, change detection, computer vision, cloud computing and algorithm development. These are at the forefront of what the company does.

Sarah then went on to explain how she came to work for catapult. She has been at the company for one year and has found it very exciting and is learning new things every day. She says

“One thing I’ve learned since leaving university is that you never really stop learning and that you’ve never fully learned everything”.

She does different, interesting things every day and works with a whole range of people.


Her job should entail travel. She was supposed to be travelling to Fiji this year but the pandemic has interfered with such plans. She is hoping that the trip will be back on in the near future.

Sarah explained her choice of A levels. She picked them because she enjoyed them but had no real idea of what she wanted to do. In hindsight she wishes she had taken physics (yay), maths and computer science as it would have made her life easier now. However, at 16 didn’t know where she was going to end up. However, she realises that physics can be applied to so many careers.


The above also shows things which she almost applied to University to do. She included this is her talk in order to show that she had little idea of what she wanted to do at this stage in her life. So, 18-year olds shouldn’t be worried if they don’t know what to do.

She really enjoyed her undergraduate geography course. She got to study many different things which gave her a breadth of knowledge which has become directly applicable to her job.


In completing the two modules, listed above, she knew what she wanted to do when she graduated.


She continued studying in her chosen field and obtained a masters degree. During her postgraduate studies she was able to complete two very useful internships and after graduating joined catapult.


Sarah finished her section of the talk by indicating where further information could be found. which consists of some very nice images is a humanitarian type project where you can go in and you can help to map areas from satellite data this is a place where there’s lots of satellite imagery that you can look at how they change over time.

Sarah was asked some questions

1) How high up are most satellites?

It depends on the type that we’re looking at. What job they are doing for us. The Sun synchronous orbit satellite,-Satellites%20in%20geostationary&text=In%20order%20to%20perfectly%20match,surface%20compared%20to%20many%20satellites.

A Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO, also called a heliosynchronous orbit) is a nearly polar orbit around a planet, in which the satellite passes over any given point of the planet’s surface at the same local mean solar time. More technically, it is an orbit arranged so that it precesses through one complete revolution each year, so it always maintains the same relationship with the Sun.

A Sun-synchronous orbit is useful for imaging, spy, and weather satellites, because every time that the satellite is overhead, the surface illumination angle on the planet underneath it will be nearly the same. This consistent lighting is a useful characteristic for satellites that image the Earth’s surface in visible or infrared wavelengths, such as weather and spy satellites; and for other remote-sensing satellites, such as those carrying ocean and atmospheric remote-sensing instruments that require sunlight. For example, a satellite in Sun-synchronous orbit might ascend across the equator twelve times a day each time at approximately 15:00 mean local time.

Typical Sun-synchronous orbits around Earth are about 600–800 km in altitude, with periods in the 96–100-minute range, and inclinations of around 98°.


The weather satellite is a type of satellite that is primarily used to monitor the weather and climate of the Earth. Satellites can be polar orbiting, covering the entire Earth asynchronously, or geostationary, hovering over the same spot on the equator.

Meteorological satellites see more than clouds: city lights, fires, effects of pollution, auroras, sand and dust storms, snow cover, ice mapping, boundaries of ocean currents, energy flows, etc. Other types of environmental information are collected using weather satellites. Weather satellite images helped in monitoring the volcanic ash cloud from Mount St. Helens and activity from other volcanoes such as Mount Etna. Smoke from fires in the western United States such as Colorado and Utah have also been monitored.

El Niño and its effects on weather are monitored daily from satellite images. The Antarctic ozone hole is mapped from weather satellite data. Collectively, weather satellites flown by the U.S., Europe, India, China, Russia, and Japan provide nearly continuous observations for a global weather watch.

A polar orbit is one in which a satellite passes above or nearly above both poles of the body being orbited (usually a planet such as the Earth, but possibly another body such as the Moon or Sun) on each revolution. It therefore has an inclination of (or very close to) 90 degrees to the body’s equator. A satellite in a polar orbit will pass over the equator at a different longitude on each of its orbits.

Polar orbits are often used for Earth-mapping, Earth observation, capturing the Earth as time passes from one point, reconnaissance satellites, as well as for some weather satellites. The Iridium satellite constellation also uses a polar orbit to provide telecommunications services. This differs from a geosynchronous orbit in which one spot on the Earth’s surface can be sensed continuously from a satellite.

Near-polar orbiting satellites commonly choose a Sun-synchronous orbit, meaning that each successive orbital pass occurs at the same local time of day. This can be particularly important for applications such as remote sensing atmospheric temperature, where the most important thing to see may well be changes over time which are not aliased onto changes in local time. To keep the same local time on a given pass, the time period of the orbit must be kept as short as possible, this is achieved by keeping the orbit lower around Earth. However, very low orbits of a few hundred kilometres rapidly decay due to drag from the atmosphere. Commonly used altitudes are between 700 and 800 km, producing an orbital period of about 100 minutes. The half-orbit on the Sun side then takes only 50 minutes, during which local time of day does not vary greatly.


GOES-8, a United States weather satellite of the meteorological-satellite service

A geostationary orbit, also referred to as a geosynchronous equatorial orbit[a] (GEO), is a circular geosynchronous orbit 35,786 kilometres above Earth’s equator and following the direction of Earth’s rotation.

Communications satellites are often placed in a geostationary orbit so that Earth-based satellite antennas (located on Earth) do not have to rotate to track them but can be pointed permanently at the position in the sky where the satellites are located. Weather satellites are also placed in this orbit for real-time monitoring and data collection, and navigation satellites to provide a known calibration point and enhance GPS accuracy.

A geosynchronous satellite is a satellite in geosynchronous orbit, with an orbital period the same as the Earth’s rotation period. Such a satellite returns to the same position in the sky after each sidereal day, and over the course of a day traces out a path in the sky that is typically some form of analemma. A special case of geosynchronous satellite is the geostationary satellite, which has a geostationary orbit – a circular geosynchronous orbit directly above the Earth’s equator. Another type of geosynchronous orbit used by satellites is the Tundra elliptical orbit.

Geostationary satellites have the unique property of remaining permanently fixed in exactly the same position in the sky as viewed from any fixed location on Earth, meaning that ground-based antennas do not need to track them but can remain fixed in one direction. Such satellites are often used for communication purposes; a geosynchronous network is a communication network based on communication with or through geosynchronous satellites.

The speed of GEO satellites should be about 3 km per second at an altitude of 35 786 km. This is much farther from Earth’s surface compared to many satellites.

2) Space looks really busy. Is a collision possible?

Yeah, absolutely. This is a very hot topic at the moment and there’s quite a lot in the news about it, especially when satellites are finished with recording or taking images or are no longer working as a GPS type satellites. They are just left orbiting and become what is known as space debris, because they’re not really wanted anymore.

There’s a lot of engineering research currently looking into how can we clean up space and make it more sustainable.

There are a lot of satellites being launched now which are designed to come back down to earth when they’re finished.

Mark, Catapult

The next speaker was Mark, who, with a geography background, is head of agriculture at the satellite applications catapult and has spent the last 10 years working with users around the world to help create solutions that leverage technology and data to solve supply chain and agricultural challenges.


Mark regards his role as brilliant. He works with farmers, retailers and governments around the world to help them make space for new improved practices and changes of policy in and around food and agriculture

You’ll see from the image above, some of the amazing possibilities that we have to leverage space within the agricultural food system. Looking at rates of deforestation in relation to the food we eat. Monitoring what’s happening in fields. Looking at livestock and looking at disease conditions using drones.

Tracking the freight that’s moving around the world. How do you know that the banana that you’re eating this morning came from Columbia and is in a condition that you want to eat it? This is fundamentally important and shows where space and agriculture really come together.

Mark then outlined how he got to the position he has now.

He has thoroughly enjoyed his journey. His major piece of advice is that you should do what you enjoy but work very hard at it.


Build good relationships at work and the possibilities are endless. Hard work, good relationships at work and doing something you enjoy will enable you to have some amazing and wonderful experiences.

Like Sarah, he initially had no idea of what he wanted to do. He loved geography and technology so he decided to study them at A level. Then he decided to do geography at university. This gave him interest in satellite imaging so he decided to do a masters degree in that field, With the experiences and the skill set he gained from his higher degree he learnt he could join an environmental consultancy and get involved in leading a project at the forefront of technology with drones and how they could be used for agriculture.

His work has led him to pop up on TV which allowed him to showcase and link technology to food issues.

Ever since he joined the catapult support, he has got to travel all over the world and work with farmers in Columbia, South East Asia and the sugarcane industries in Australia.

He has enjoyed engaging and building relationships with some of the leading influential figures in the food industry and working with governments. Not bad considering he is still only in his mid-30s.

His has been an incredible journey and he doesn’t want it to stop. His 14-year-old self would not have believed he would have achieved so much. He hopes that any young person watching his talk will enjoy what they do but work hard as they will be well prepared for what happens and the decisions that need to be made. He hopes that the challenges will be embraced, got on with and enjoyed.


When Mark talks about food, agriculture and space he always uses the very simple picture above because people often look at agriculture as something simple. In fact, they don’t realize just how complex our food system is, being incredibly global and very local. It has to evolve to respond to changes and challenges.

It’s been tough this year with the challenges caused by Covid 19 where people have been going to supermarkets to strip shelves of certain items.

Our food industry has to ensure that we get the food back on the shelf as quickly as possible and space is fundamental to that.

The agricultural sector doesn’t understand space and they think it’s just about GPS and navigation. If we can bring the two together, we could really make some amazing differences.

Mark then went through some of the challenges that the global food industry is facing at the moment.

A recent David Attenborough documentary on Netflix showed some incredibly worrying statistics.



Sir David Frederick Attenborough (born 8 May 1926) is an English broadcaster and natural historian. He is best known for writing and presenting, in conjunction with the BBC Natural History Unit, the nine natural history documentary series forming the Life collection that together constitute a comprehensive survey of animal and plant life on Earth.

In 2019, Attenborough narrated Our Planet, an eight-part documentary series, for Netflix.

The series addresses issues of conservation while featuring these disparate animals in their respective home regions, and has been noted for its greater focus on humans’ impact on the environment than traditional nature documentaries, centring around how climate change impacts all living creatures.

Space is a massive opportunity for businesses to really tackle some of these global challenges.

What drives Mark is that he gets to play with cool technology including space technology, but at the same time he gets to make a difference globally to the way that food is produced.


When you think that about 70% of global water resources are needed for agriculture we are going to have to farm and produce food differently in the future to conserve our resources.

We’re going to have to look at things like vertical farming which uses less resources.


Lettuce grown in indoor vertical farming system

Vertical farming is the practice of growing crops in vertically stacked layers. It often incorporates controlled-environment agriculture, which aims to optimize plant growth, and soilless farming techniques such as hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics. Some common choices of structures to house vertical farming systems include buildings, shipping containers, tunnels, and abandoned mine shafts.

Current applications of vertical farmings coupled with other state-of-the-art technologies, such as specialized LED lights, have resulted in over 10 times the crop yield than would receive through traditional farming methods

Climate change is also going to change the way that we have to produce food.


NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio, Key and Title by uploader (Eric Fisk) –

Temperature changes to date have been most pronounced in northern latitudes and over land masses. The image uses longer term averages of at least a decade to smooth out climate variability due to factors such as El Niño. The map is improved from the highest quality rendering that NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio generates, with horizontal and vertical lines removed and with a more legible projection of Kavraiskiy VII. Grey areas in the image have insufficient data for rendering.

Climate change includes both the global warming driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases, and the resulting large-scale shifts in weather patterns. Though there have been previous periods of climatic change, since the mid-20th century the rate of human impact on Earth’s climate system and the global scale of that impact have been unprecedented.


It is a terrible statistic that 70% of agricultural land is used for livestock production but this only produces 17% of global calories.

We’ve got to think about new smarter ways to produce food, but we also need to change our habits. We all need to eat less meat, and perhaps remove it completely from our diet. We have to think about how we can optimise the way we produce our protein.


When you consider we lose or waste 1.3 billion tonnes of food each year. This enough to feed 2 billion people. How can we use technology to ensure that we’re planting and using and maintaining the food that we produce effectively?

When you think farmers can produce 200% of the amount of broccoli each year to meet contracts and to ensure that deadlines are not missed you would think we would be able to use technology and data better and get the quantity down to 100%

165 million metric tonnes of plastic are currently in our oceans and by 2050 the mass of plastic will be greater than the mass of fish.


Again, what are we going to do in terms of the use of data technology to make a difference here in the way that we want to eat and pick our food.


Our effects on the environment means that one million species are currently threatened with extinction.

When we think about food production. We tend to think of large fields and big, open agriculture.

We have to think about new ways of producing regenerative agriculture. We all want to eat food that we know has been grown from a very nutritious and sustainable source.


One in nine people around the world are malnourished because they cannot get the nutrients in the food that they’re growing. This is particularly prevalent in developing nations.


Agriculture contributes 10% of the world’s GDP and up to 30% in low income countries.


Gross domestic product (GDP) is a monetary measure of the market value of all the final goods and services produced in a specific time period. It is useful in comparing national economies on the international market.

80% of the world’s farmers are smallholders growing less than five hectares. There are millions and millions of people relying on agriculture for their income

We don’t want to spend a lot of money on milk. At the moment milk costs around 30p for a litre and farmers don’t see all of that. One of the reasons is that there is a lot of milk being produced. We need to ask ourselves whether we should we be buying at that price or do we need to think about paying differently to ensure that farmers have a reasonable livelihood. An added bonus is that the dairy cattle might have a nicer life too.

We do need to look after the farmers because they produce so much of the food that we eat.


If we don’t make changes by 2050, we know we’re going to have huge problems. These include a large increase in the amount of water that we use. We’re going to need nearly 70% more land to produce food and we’re going to see nearly a 90% increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

That should terrify everybody reading this. We have to change and David Attenborough is completely right.

The future is in our hands and technology is going to be important to help us solve the problems.


Space and or World is changing. There are over three thousand satellites in space.


Early in 2020, SpaceX became the operator of the world’s largest active satellite constellation, with 180 satellites orbiting the planet.

SpaceX’s ambitious project is to provide internet capabilities to every inch of the globe. To get that kind of connectivity, the company wants the option to launch up to 42,000 satellites over the next decade. That’s about 21 times the number of operational satellites currently in space.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., (SpaceX), is an American aerospace manufacturer and space transportation services company headquartered in Hawthorne, California. It was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk with the goal of reducing space transportation costs.


Elon Reeve Musk FRS (born June 28, 1971) is a business magnate, industrial designer, engineer, and philanthropist. He is the founder, CEO, CTO and chief designer of SpaceX; early investor, CEO and product architect of Tesla, Inc.; founder of The Boring Company; co-founder of Neuralink; and co-founder and initial co-chairman of OpenAI.

Elon Musk needs to make sure that his satellites link correctly with technology and can cope with our changing world. Space is going to change our world, but it needs to be in a way that makes everybody happy. Astronomers are very worried that the large quantity of satellites planed are going to get in the way of space exploration.


When you think about space-based technologies they really are the building blocks of innovation we rely on.


Sputnik 1 was the first artificial Earth satellite. It was launched on the 4th of October 1957

The Global Positioning System (GPS), originally NAVSTAR GPS, is a satellite-based radionavigation system owned by the United States government and operated by the United States Space Force. The first satellite in the system, Navstar 1, was launched on the 22nd of February 1978.

Many applications have been spawned from using the satellites. Satellites are necessary for surfing the internet and playing computer games with people who live on the other side of the world.

Fundamentally, many of the applications rely on space and it’s the same for many of our agricultural applications and we’re starting to realize the potential of space across agriculture and the image below really showcases where it’s being used.


In terms of innovation there are going to be a huge range of satellites being used in some amazing ways to monitor global food production from the field level to the plant level to the global level and all that data and the smart analytics and the Google computational systems that have been created are going to allow that to be accessible in amazing new ways that farmers are not even dreaming of right now.



Just using simple tablets and pulling through real time data, the global monitoring systems are updating all of the models that exist to ensure that we’re predicting what is going to happen and showing farmers what needs to be done, rather than reacting to an issue because they’ve seen it in a field.

When you think about it from a connectivity perspective you are going to see drones and robots in the fields.


Films like interstellar give some idea of what it is going to be like in the future in terms of agricultural food systems. We’re going to have hugely connected systems with food moving around autonomously.

Interstellar is a 2014 British-American epic science fiction film directed, co-written and produced by Christopher Nolan. It stars Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Bill Irwin, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, Matt Damon, and Michael Caine. Set in a dystopian future where humanity is struggling to survive, the film follows a group of astronauts who travel through a wormhole near Saturn in search of a new home for mankind.

New jobs will be created. Mark recently visited a farm where they were thinking about employing a chief technology officer to manage and understand all of the data and technology involved in modern farming.

When you think about a career you need to be prepared for the onset of new technologies. When I started working as a clerk in 1979 there were no computers and I wrote or photocopied everything and filed it away in cupboards. Even ten years ago we didn’t have some of the technologies we have now. Career opportunities are going to be endless when we think about the information received from the satellites that we’re already using in the agricultural sector.


Sarah, in her talk mentioned using satellites and robotics to monitor global fishing compliance and looking at how deforestation changes the environment.

People should be excited about what can be done in the future and the opportunities available with working with technology or within an industry such as the food and drink industries.


Mark and Sarah were asked some questions

1) How long do the different satellites take to orbit the Earth.

Mark: It depends on where their altitudes are in relation to the Earth. Some of these satellites are orbiting but staying in the same place above the Earth. They are geostationary and have to be many thousands of km above the Earth. They are literally staying in the same position, taking 24 hours to orbit the Earth. That’s how you get all the connectivity with your phone, TV etc. Weather data is reliable because these satellites are constant in terms of where they are and I think that when you look at Elon Musk constellations and one web, you are going to see the use of imaging and connectivity becoming increasingly common. What is incredibly exciting is what all this will enable people to do. Things that they have never thought about including opportunities that might open doors in the future.

Starlink is a satellite internet constellation being constructed by SpaceX providing satellite Internet access. The constellation will consist of thousands of mass-produced small satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), working in combination with ground transceivers.

My own personal view here is that we do need to consider how all these satellites are going to interfere with astronomical observations and whether they will interfere with each other.

2) How many kilobytes of data is downloaded from a satellite every day.

Mark: Terabytes. 75% of all of the images that have ever been captured have never been looked at.

3) How long do satellites stay in space for

Mark: Some satellites have a lifespan of months and they’re given a very, very low Earth orbit. These tubes satellites are about the size of a loaf of bread and are put into orbit where they will burn up after a certain length of time.


Other satellites will be up for decades.

Some of the opportunities and challenges involved is whether we can actually manufacture the satellites in space because of the difficulty and expense involved in launching them

Caroline, RAL space


Caroline works at RAL space as a senior Earth observation scientist.

After a satellite is launched. There is a lot of work that needs to be done before its data can be used by other scientists for many different applications.

Caroline uses her background in physics to monitor and improve the measurements that are being made from the Sentinel three, a satellite mission dedicated to monitoring the Earth’s surface temperature.


Sentinel-3 is an Earth observation satellite constellation developed by the European Space Agency as part of the Copernicus Programme. It currently (as of 2019) consists of 2 satellites: Sentinel-3A and Sentinel-3B. Two more satellites, Sentinel-3C and Sentinel-3D, are on order.

Copernicus, formerly Global Monitoring for Environment and Security, is the European programme to establish a European capacity for Earth observation designed to provide European policy makers and public authorities with accurate and timely information to better manage the environment, and to understand and mitigate the effects of climate change.


Caroline’s talk was about Sentinel three and what she and her colleagues do within the mission performance centre to monitor and control the mission.

Satellite instruments need care and attention:

Earth observation satellites make many different measurements and have lots of different uses. Sarah and Mark have talked about some of them;

Behind each different satellite instrument is a team of people who make sure that the measurements are reliable and that the instruments are working well;

At RAL Caroline helps look after a satellite instrument that measures sea and land temperatures. Below is a picture of it “smiling down at us”



The above image shows an example of what the satellite instruments measure. It is a whole day’s worth of ocean temperature measurements taken in November 2018. It covers the whole globe and you can see the warmer temperatures near the equator and that the temperature drops as you move towards the poles.

The data from the satellite measurements are used by scientists to study climate and to try and predict and model climate change.

The data is also used by weather forecasters so it’s fed into weather forecasting computer models that help to predict what the weather is going to be like for us tomorrow.

As well as measuring the surface temperature the satellite can also monitor fires, look for plumes from volcanoes or dust storms in the atmosphere and make a few other measurements.

In their work to support the satellite mission there are three basic things that need to be done and they are calibration, post launch checks and monitoring.

1) Calibration is important for any instrument we use. We need to know that the instrument is capable of giving us accurate readings. How well can the instrument make measurements? A relevant example at the moment is the thermometer. Normal body temperature is 37oC and the temperature of a person suffering from Covid-19 is 37.8oC or higher (of course there are other symptoms too).


A poorly calibrated thermometer could mean staying at home when you don’t need to or going out and infecting the people around you.

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). It was first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, Hubei, China, and has resulted in an ongoing pandemic. On 5 October, the WHO said that one in ten people around the world (around 800 million) may have been infected with COVID–19. As of 12 October 2020, 37.5 million cases have been reported across 188 countries and territories with more than 1.07 million deaths; more than 26.1 million people have recovered.

Common symptoms include fever, cough, fatigue, shortness of breath or breathing difficulties, and loss of smell and taste. While most people have mild symptoms, some people develop acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) possibly precipitated by cytokine storm, multi-organ failure, septic shock, and blood clots. The incubation period may range from one to fourteen days.

We need to make sure that the satellite instruments can measure temperatures accurately so we can be sure that the temperature of the Earth is increasing and we can accurately model the climate change using computer applications. It’s really important that quality measurements can be made.

Part of RAL Space’s work is to calibrate these instruments before they are launched. The temperature measuring instruments are taken to the lab and placed near targets, which have temperatures that are known really well.

The image below shows the Sea and Land Surface Radiometers (SLSTR)-B instrument in the Space Test Chamber (STC) clean room at RAL Space under preparation for the infra-red radiometric calibration tests.


The technicians in the lab just left the instruments to target certain temperatures. If it measured the temperatures accurately then we know that when it’s in space it will be recording Earth temperatures accurately and we know how well it’s measuring.

When Caroline started at RAL Space, part of her job was to write the code that would be looking at the data recorded in the lab.

The Sentinel instruments can measure the Earth’s surface temperature to within 0.3 degrees, which is quite accurate considering the distance between the satellite and the Earth (814km).

2) Post-launch checks

So, we have a nicely calibrated instrument and after it is launched into space, we need to know it will work as well as expected. It’s the first time it is used in a real environment.


A rocket launch is a big deal for a satellite launch. You can imagine what it feels like if you go on a theme park ride. You get very shaken up and if you haven’t attached everything, like loose change, you will find it gets lost. Same with a satellite. We need to know that its behaviour in space is the same as it was in the lab and also, it’s the first time that the Satellite instrument has been used in a real space environment.


For the first three months after launch the data is checked before it is released so any corrections can be made. This is the commissioning phase.

The next image was taken during the commission phase. You can see Iceland (the country not the shop) in the middle of the brown bits and Greenland towards the top left of the image. The image is not very good and it is very stripy. It had to be corrected.


Part of the image processing involves identifying clouds. A cloud mask is applied where all the cloudy pixels are marked. When the satellite was first launched the cloud mass in the bottom left of the above image was not very good at all and you can see in pink (below) where there has been an attempt to mark the cloudy pixels. It was very problematic and it took a good chunk of work to try and work out why the instrument wasn’t working properly.


3) Another aspect of what they do is to continually monitor the instrument and the data that it produces after it’s been launched and checked in space.


There are actually now two instruments in orbit. Sentinel 3 was joined by Sentinel 3b a couple years later, and when you combine the data from the instruments this is what you see during a whole day. The image above was taken on the second of February 2020 and several people monitored these instruments so the data could be compared with data from other similar satellites. This sort of thing helps to check that everyone was measuring the same thing, which is what you expect to be done.


The surface temperature of water measured by the satellites can be checked using a network of drifting buoys floating around in the ocean. There’re hundreds of them out there. The two sets of data can be compared indicating if the satellites are producing the right sorts of numbers.

Uniform places on Earth, like deserts, can also help check that the satellites are measuring what is expected every time.

We can record the measurements and try and model what we expect the satellite to see and compare the results with what we actually see so that we can pick up any long-term changes at the right place and time.

Another thing which they have just started to try and do is to use Citizen Science to check the cloud identification methods.

Anyone can be involved and you can find out more by clicking the link given below

CloudCatcher is an online people-powered research project that is being developed on Zooniverse and asks volunteers to spot the clouds in real satellite images and give feedback on their experience, helping climate change research.

If you go to the website you can look at some real satellite images and help them by checking out their cloud identification schemes.

It involves a lot of work to keep the satellite instruments working properly but it is very enjoyable.

Caroline’s career path


Like Sarah and Mark, Caroline thinks you should do what interests you and not worry too much about specific jobs at a young age. Her interests led her to choose A level physics, maths, chemistry and design technology.

In year 13 (last year of A level studies) she looked at several courses and found one at the University of Leicester which combined physics with space science and technology. The degree lasted four years doing that. It was a really good course and a very good university and she thoroughly recommends it.

At the end of her degree she didn’t really know what career to follow. She did quite like being at university and wanted to carry on studying physics, being part of a research team. So, she decided to look at PhD opportunities and one came up at Imperial College London.

You apply for a PhD in the same way you apply for a job and, if you are lucky, you get funding whilst you study. It’s basically a really long project and your supervisor will have an idea of a topic for you to study and problems for you to solve and he/she will be there to guide you through the process.

If the course has progressed well, your thesis has been accepted and you have defended it in your viva you will get your qualification and be able to call yourself, Doctor (but don’t try to deliver babies)

Caroline’s PhD topic basically involved climate instruments on the Met office aircraft and she took measurements of cirrus clouds using part of spectrum that not many people have studied


The Meteorological Office, abbreviated as the Met Office is the United Kingdom’s national weather service.

The PhD studies gave her lots of opportunities including travel. She was able to attend conferences in places that she wouldn’t have visited.

She highly recommends the PhD although it was hard going at times because it was a big project.

Once she had completed the PhD she spent two more years at Imperial as a postdoc.

A postdoctoral researcher or postdoc is a person professionally conducting research after the completion of their doctoral studies (typically a PhD). The ultimate goal of a postdoctoral research position is to pursue additional research, training, or teaching in order to have better skills to pursue a career in academia, research, or any other fields.

Postdocs tend to be short term contracts where you’re doing another bit of research at the university.

At the end of two years she didn’t really want to carry on working at the university so she went looking for jobs and found one at RAL Space supporting the instrument that her talk was about.

What Caroline enjoys about her job, both day to day and long term


It is the sort of thing she wanted to do as a young girl although at that age it wasn’t a specific thing.

She likes seeing results. Her work involves real satellite data that is used by people. She finds that quite satisfying. She likes being a small part of big research including research into climate change.

Day-to-day tasks involve problem solving, analysing data, coding, writing slides and doing reports. The work is reasonable variable.

She also likes working with people who have similar interests, because when you work in a particular field of science it’s quite likely that everyone will be interested in similar things.

And it’s nice to travel and go to conferences, probably a couple of times a year. Often you get to go abroad and get involved with other institutions.

So, the talk has given a flavour of what Caroline and her colleagues do.

Caroline was asked some questions:

1) Why were there some white areas in the map showing ocean temperatures? Did these represent areas that were not monitored?

The white areas on the sea temperature map occurred because there was a lot of cloud. If clouds are present in the atmosphere the surface temperatures underneath can’t be measured. So, at any one time about two thirds of the surface of the Earth is covered by cloud and they just have to blank out that part of the map in white. We just can’t get the surface temperature measurement. Measurements are taken daily so over the course of a month most of the Earth can be covered.

2) Can satellites map the bed of the ocean or is there a limit to what depth they can reach.

Some satellites use different parts of the spectrum. Sentinel-3 does measure using infra-red as well as visible light

Some satellites measure using longer wavelengths such as radio waves (radar). They can penetrate to lower depths.

Sarah added that we can look at areas close to the sea shore to look for near shore symmetry. It’s something which is being done, certainly in the research domain and but as yet the current types of satellite that we have can’t measure more than a couple of meters below depth. So, looking for old wrecks and lost planes isn’t currently possible but could be in the future.

Joel, Catapult


Joel is the Regional Innovation and Design lead at catapult and specialises in creative thinking and design.

His role is to help people understand problems that can be addressed by new technology and think of new ideas to solve them.

Over the last 10 years he has worked with students, scientists, entrepreneurs, big industries and governments all over the world helping them understand where space technology can make a positive difference.

At heart Joel is a designer and his talk was about applications of satellites, about design and about designing applications of satellites and how he got to where he is now.

Space technology and satellites can seem quite distant and that’s fair because they are sometimes thousands of miles away. But the things they do affect our lives and those of everyone on the planet.

They tell us whether or not we’ll need an umbrella or how to get to a friend’s house.


They also tell us how much the ice caps are melting every year and help us to monitor deforestation across the world.


They monitor our crops, our oceans, our cities, our coastlines and they bring the internet to unconnected places that enables healthcare and education to be carried out in difficult to reach places.


They allow us to track wildlife and monitor poaching. They help us protect the environment and when disaster hit, they help us to see how bad the damage is and get aid to those who need it the most.


The above right image is the result of a typhoon flood in Thailand

Design is creative problem solving. Trying to solve a problem or challenge by creating something new.

What you’re designing normally depends on the job you have. You could be designing a chair or the machine that makes the chairs. Or creating the computer program, the software, that controls the machines that makes the chairs.

Or you could be designing or planning the conference for the people who design or make the chairs, or who write the software for the machines that make the chairs. You might even choose to use the chairs at the conference.

You could be helping the chair industry to design new ways to source sustainable materials to use or you could be working with governments all over the world to design new laws to stop people cutting down too many trees to make chairs.

The point here is that design can be applied to almost anything.

If you can picture the world being slightly different for the better, and really think about how to make that change happen so the world looks like your vision, then you are designing

So how do you do it, well the method Joel was taught is called human centred design where you make sure that any change you want to make in the world you base your design on how people will be affected by that change.

Human-centred design (HCD) [also Human-centred design, as used in ISO standards] is an approach to problem solving, commonly used in design and management frameworks that develops solutions to problems by involving the human perspective in all steps of the problem-solving process. Human involvement typically takes place in observing the problem within context, brainstorming, conceptualizing, developing, and implementing the solution.

And you can always tell how well people have done this by your experience of using something. Good design is intuitive, it’s easy to understand and enjoyable to use. Bad design is confusing and frustrating and when you’ve experienced it once you don’t want to experience it again.

The secret to design the secret and problem solving is making sure you understand the problem before you try and solve it.


Joel was taught to use this by using the Double Diamond model where the shape represents the type of thinking that you would do.

So, you have an idea and you would start at the discovery point thinking broadly and trying to learn about what’s going on.

You would then move on to the definition point, narrowing down the real problem that you want to solve.

Then you expand your thinking to start coming up with lots of ideas of how to solve the problem and finally you narrow down on the one single solution to this well understood problem.

What you might notice here is that you don’t actually start coming up with ideas and solutions until you’re halfway through the process.

Often people want to start right from the end and just create something. Now that might work but it often doesn’t. So, if you want to be sure that you’re going to make a real difference with your idea, you should start by researching it first.

Being a designer in the space sector means helping different groups of people go through this process in order to come up with new ways of using space technology to solve big problems around the world.

So, to give an example of this, Joel talked about a project that he did in the Philippines.


The Philippines is ravaged by almost every natural disaster you can think of. Typhoons, monsoons, earthquakes, floods and even volcanic eruptions.

The Philippines is made up of lots of small islands and when a disaster hits, those islands can lose the connectivity they need for communication. And when that happens, they can’t call for help.

Joel was working as the lead designer with a satellite communications company to help them understand how satellite communications hardware could help the emergency responders better coordinate aid in disaster situations.


Response time: As a result of the challenges highlighted in the image above the time taken to effectively respond to a disaster is effectively increased, increasing the risk to those affected.

Response efficiency: Without fast and accurate information about the situation on the ground it becomes extremely difficult to effectively and efficiently coordinate a multiagency response to disaster scenarios.

So, Joel and his colleagues went to the Philippines and talked to the different response organizations, asking them about the challenges they faced and getting all the problems mapped out.

The challenges ranged from not knowing the status of evacuation centres, not knowing where aid was being distributed, not being able to track responders, or having no idea of how bad the damage was.

The biggest challenge was that for governments on the mainland to know what had happened they had to fly a helicopter out with a team of responders, who would then have to set up a base. The responders then had to spend time traveling around by motorbike, filling out paper forms to describe how bad the damage was, returning to base to type up the information onto a computer, saving it on a memory stick and then flying the memory stick back to the mainland by helicopter.

On the mainland someone would then have to use the information on that memory stick to fill out a big spreadsheet which would go on to have the data from the memory sticks collected from all the places that had been damaged. This took days.

A mobile application was proposed that could work offline on a phone to capture information including pictures. Then a satellite internet terminal would create a Wi Fi hotspot that would automatically upload all the data from each phone and sync it with that of the government on the mainland saving time and saving lives.

If Joel and his colleagues hadn’t gone out to talk to people in the Philippines it would have been difficult for them to understand the problems and they wouldn’t have been able to understand how satellite technology could create a solution.

Joel has been fortunate to travel around the world.


He has been to Asia, Africa, America, South America, Europe, working with teams of different experts to help design satellite enabled applications to look at things like illegal fishing, deforestation, flooding, illegal gold mining and disaster response.

He’s even worked on microgravity applications and designing cities on Mars.

When he was at school, he didn’t really know what he wanted to do. He was interested in how the world worked and how people worked. He liked science and maths, but he also liked art, drama and being creative.


He found a course in Glasgow, split between the University of Glasgow and the Glasgow School of Art, called product design engineering, and it was exactly the right mix of the technical and creative that he’d been looking for. It was about how to design, but it was also about how stuff works.

From University he had a job designing lights for council flats and prisons. Then he designed machines for different manufacturing processes and components for ejector seats.

After a few more jobs, which helped him to understand what he didn’t want to do because they felt a bit too technical and disconnected from the world, He found the Satellite Applications Catapult.

Since joining Satellite Applications Catapult as a designer he has risen to become the regional innovation and design lead where he not only helps on projects but he has helped to design innovation centres and services across the UK.

His company works in the space sector but so much of what the company does isn’t about space. It’s about the Earth.

The company does have engineers and scientists, but it also has people who’ve studied design, business, programming, finance, marketing, law, human resources, and there was even a designer who started out as a furniture maker designing chairs, so when you think of a career in space, you aren’t just thinking of astronauts and rocket scientists, but of all the creative ways that you might use space technology to help improve people’s lives all over the world.

Joel was asked some questions:

1) How long does it take to code a satellite.

It probably depends on what you’re trying to code. It probably takes longer to write the program and the code than to load the code on to the satellite

Caroline added that with the satellite, your measuring what is called raw data, that is, just literally bits and bytes. So, the process involves someone writing a document which explains how those bits and bytes are taken and transferred into actual useful scientific measurements.

A group of software engineers then take the document and use it to write the code. Often, it’s different people doing different things and it can take years and years because everything has to be done properly, everything has to be checked.

During the commission phase of the satellite there are still errors that come up at the launch. It’s a long process involving lots of people.

Questions for all the speakers:

1) How big are the satellites?

Sarah from catapult said that the ones she works with range from the size of a loaf of bread, known as CubeSat, up to 10s of metres.


A CubeSat (U-class spacecraft) is a type of miniaturized satellite for space research that is made up of multiples of 10 cm × 10 cm × 10 cm cubic units. CubeSats have a mass of no more than 1.33 kilograms (2.9 lb) per unit, and often use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components for their electronics and structure. CubeSats are commonly put in orbit by deployers on the International Space Station, or launched as secondary payloads on a launch vehicle. More than 1200 CubeSats have been launched as of January 2020. More than 1100 have been successfully deployed in orbit and more than 80 have been destroyed in launch failures.

2) What are the smallest satellites orbiting our Earth?

There are ones that are like a loaf of bread that Sarah talked about but there are also satellites that are even smaller, about the size of a Rubik’s cube. Their size depends on their purpose.

3) Is it possible to see data from under the Earth’s surface.

The answer to this is yes. This is based upon the sensor that is being used. So, we can use techniques such as ground penetrating radar. It won’t look like an image you might be used to seeing. But it is possible and there are some sensors on satellites, which can see a few metres below the surface in certain conditions, such as in deserts. We can often see the surface below the sand. But often, we infer information about what is under the surface, based on what we can see.

Above the surface we can detect certain minerals for mining based on what the surface deposits look like or the temperature of the surface.

We can look at surface movement. Land surface can be seen moving after an earthquake, for example, and this can be used to help find the epicentres or looking at a mine which might be close to a collapse.

4) Satellite use in agriculture is a growing. Can we expect agriculture in any of the planets we’re looking at?

We’re already looking at the International Space Station to germinate crops in a vacuum environment and we’re already producing food in warehouses using vertical farming. It’s highly likely that if we are to colonize other planets, we will need to produce food locally.

What is the temperature in space?

This varies depending on how close you are to the sun or a star. Space is really, really cold most of the time, at about minus 270 degrees Celsius. But when you get closer to the sun or other stars it gets really hot. It’s certainly something that needs to be considered when designing the satellites, we need to make sure that they can operate in these harsh conditions in space.

About space weather

Weather describes the day to day changes in the environment around us, the conditions of the air in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Space Weather is what happens much higher up at the top of the atmosphere of the Earth, well above the clouds and out in to space towards the sun.

We have storms on Earth and we also have solar storms in space. And this is where material from the surface of the sun is released out into space. It travels towards Earth and it can collide with the Earth’s magnetic field. So, we have this sort of invisible bubble around us that protects us from radiation.

A solar storm is a disturbance on the Sun, which can emanate outward across the heliosphere, affecting the entire Solar System, including Earth and its magnetosphere, and is the cause of space weather in the short-term with long-term patterns comprising space climate.

When you go to the beach on a sunny day you have to wear sunscreen to protect yourself from UV radiation. The Earth has a magnetic field that protects us as well. So, when the material from the sun reaches the magnetic field, it can interact. It can collide and this can sometimes cause problems for us.


An artist’s depiction of solar wind particles interacting with Earth’s magnetosphere. Sizes are not to scale.

It can cause damage to some satellites, which would be a problem if it’s the satellites that we use for GPS or for Wi Fi, but it can also affect radio signals, TV signals and so many other things that we use every single day. It can cause power cuts and there have been some big events in the past, such as the Carrington event.

The Carrington Event was a powerful geomagnetic storm on September 1–2, 1859, during solar cycle 10 (1855–1867). A solar coronal mass ejection (CME) hit Earth’s magnetosphere and induced the largest geomagnetic storm on record. The associated “white light flare” in the solar photosphere was observed and recorded by British astronomers Richard Carrington and Richard Hodgson. The storm caused strong auroral displays and wrought havoc with telegraph systems. The now-standard unique IAU identifier for this flare is SOL1859-09-01.

A solar storm of this magnitude occurring today would cause widespread electrical disruptions, blackouts and damage due to extended outages of the electrical grid. The solar storm of 2012 was of similar magnitude, but it passed Earth’s orbit without striking the planet, missing by nine days.

Another Carrington-level event is inevitable. Auroral records can be used to measure the historic size of past storms. They indicate that storms like the one that hit Quebec happen roughly every 50 years, while Carrington-level events occur roughly every 150 years. It’s been 162 years since 1858 but we don’t need to panic just yet. The sun, which operates on an 11-year cycle, just had a solar minimum a year ago in April 2019. The next solar maximum, the period of highest activity, won’t occur until sometime in 2023-2026 and some maximums are weaker than others.

The March 1989 geomagnetic storm occurred as part of severe to extreme solar storms during early to mid-March 1989, the most notable being a geomagnetic storm that struck Earth on March 13. This geomagnetic storm caused a nine-hour outage of Hydro-Québec’s electricity transmission system. The onset time was exceptionally rapid. Other historically significant solar storms occurred later in 1989, during a very active period of solar cycle 22.

Solar storms can create big radio blackouts across the earth so space Weather is something that we need to be aware of and we need to be able to predict it as well.

If a storm as big as the Carrington event were to happen today, lots of items we use every day wouldn’t work including anything that relies on the internet or GPS – mobile phone apps, card payments, television – as well as power grids that supply our homes and schools. The radiation from a storm could also be a problem for astronauts and airline crews. It’s important that people are aware of space weather and what the experts are doing to help keep us safe.

RAL Space are working with the Met Office as well, which do space weather forecasts, so they can tell us how likely solar storm is to happen.

These solar storms are not all bad as they also cause the Northern Lights, also known as the aurora borealis, to occur.


An aurora (plural: auroras or aurorae), sometimes referred to as polar lights (aurora polaris), northern lights (aurora borealis), or southern lights (aurora australis), is a natural light display in the Earth’s sky, predominantly seen in high-latitude regions (around the Arctic and Antarctic).

Auroras are the result of disturbances in the magnetosphere caused by solar wind. These disturbances are sometimes strong enough to alter the trajectories of charged particles in both solar wind and magnetospheric plasma. These particles, mainly electrons and protons, precipitate into the upper atmosphere (thermosphere/exosphere).

The resulting ionization and excitation of atmospheric constituents emit light of varying colour and complexity. The form of the aurora, occurring within bands around both polar regions, is also dependent on the amount of acceleration imparted to the precipitating particles. Precipitating protons generally produce optical emissions as incident hydrogen atoms after gaining electrons from the atmosphere. Proton auroras are usually observed at lower latitudes.

They are beautiful, spectacular displays of lights in the sky often seen near the North Pole and South Pole.

So, there are upsides and downsides to space weather

During November 2020, people from across the world got together at the online European Space Weather Symposium to talk about space weather. Scientists, engineers, satellite operators, power grid operators, people working in aviation and maritime, and space weather forecasters discussed solutions to problems caused by space weather and ways to work together to reduce the impact of such events on our daily lives.

Space weather events can sometimes interrupt electrical signals but they create beautiful views in the sky.


On August 31, 2012, a long prominence/filament of solar material that had been hovering in the Sun’s atmosphere, the corona, erupted out into space at 4:36 p.m. EDT. Seen here from the Solar Dynamics Observatory, the flare caused auroras to be seen on Earth on September 3.

A solar flare is a sudden flash of increased brightness on the Sun, usually observed near its surface and in close proximity to a sunspot group. It looks a bit like a fountain. Powerful flares are often, but not always, accompanied by a coronal mass ejection.

Flares are closely associated with the ejection of plasmas and particles through the Sun’s corona into outer space; flares also copiously emit radio waves. If the ejection is in the direction of the Earth, particles associated with this disturbance can penetrate into the upper atmosphere (the ionosphere) and cause bright auroras, and may even disrupt long range radio communication. It usually takes days for the solar plasma ejecta to reach Earth. Flares also occur on other stars, where the term stellar flare applies. High-energy particles, which may be relativistic, can arrive almost simultaneously with the electromagnetic radiations.



Some images of some Aurora. The different colours depend on how high they are in the sky. The lowest ones are pink. Higher up they are more green or blue and then the highest ones are a dark red.

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