Lights out: funding changes raise fears for the future of aurora

John Gill

January 10, 2008

Cutting UK involvement in the study of the Northern Lights could be a disaster, says one physicist.

As a space scientist at Lancaster University, Jim Wild is an expert in the field, and his enthusiasm for his research is clear.

But he is worried about the future following the announcement of funding cuts that affect all ground-based facilities for solar-terrestrial physics in the UK.

Dr Wild explained: "The ghostly light of the aurora is emitted when solar particles helter-skelter down the Earth's magnetic field and collide with the outer atmosphere.

"Studying the aurora helps us to understand the natural forces linking the Earth to our nearest star and also reveals the state of 'space weather' - the rapid fluctuations in the space environment that can damage satellites and harm astronauts.

"Although satellites provide invaluable measurements, they are too few in number to provide complete coverage. It's like trying to forecast the weather here on Earth with only a handful of weather stations.

"To complement the satellite measurements, we need ground-based instruments such as imagers, radars and magnetic field sensors.

"This is an area in which the UK is world-leading, but the cuts and the closure of our facilities effectively means the withdrawal of the UK from this area of space research.

"They haven't said they're going to kill off any of the spacecraft, but there's really only one mission at the moment and it's within a year of the end of its life.

"When that dies naturally, they'll have killed all the ground-based facilities, and we will have no tools left and that will be it.

"The technical expertise will leave, research students will leave, and this will effectively kill a community.

"The feeling is that this is the death of solar-terrestrial physics in the UK, at a time when the rest of the world is getting into it in a big way.

"We cover an awful lot of the Arctic and Scandinavian area with UK instruments, and we're effectively pulling out and thumbing our nose to our partners and saying we don't do this any more."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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