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#SpaceWatchGL Interviews: Marco Aliberti of ESPI

Have you ever thought about the weather patterns that occur in space? Space Weather is something that is often overlooked but the weather events that happen in space can have a great effect on our space infrastructure such as satellites and the services they provide here on Earth. Along with the range of other subjects addressed by ESPI, Space Weather is an increasing priority, especially as humanity moves further into space. Marco Aliberti, Senior Research Fellow at ESPI, sat down with SpaceWatch.Global’s Torsten Kriening to talk further about his role and ESPI’s Space Weather Service report which analyses the effects of Space Weather on our assets in space.

Tell us about your specific research work at ESPI

As an ESPI Senior Research Fellow, I am responsible for managing a broad set of research activities, holding relationships with key European public and private stakeholders in the execution of projects as well as representing the Institute in relevant fora and organising conferences and events, including our annual Autumn Conference. My research portfolio primarily focuses on international space affairs and Europe’s cooperation with non-European countries, which – in line with the mandate and mission of ESPI – is one of the core pillars of the Institute’s activities. However, I have been carrying out and publishing a number of research projects also in the areas of access to space and human spaceflight, governance space, and Asia’s space programmes, particularly those of China, Japan and India.

What is the Space Weather Service report about? How did you collect and collate the research?

Many critical infrastructures, be it in space and on the ground, are vulnerable to the effects of space weather phenomena, such as geomagnetic storms, solar flares, solar radiation storms or ionospheric disturbances. These phenomena, for instance, can seriously impair or even disrupt the functioning of satellite systems, energy grids, pipelines, railways, and so on. Because our reliance on these systems is increasing, it is becoming more and more important to deliver dedicated services that will allow to mitigate against the negative effects of Space Weather.

This ESPI report provides an in-depth investigation of these issues, elaborating on the steps that need to be taken on the technical, market and institutional fronts in order to ensure a sustainable provision of operational SWE (Space Weather) services in Europe. The study also provides a comprehensive mapping of the ongoing European and international efforts in the field and includes different scenarios for the management of operational space weather service delivery. The unique character of this ESPI report is that it complements the predominantly scientific focus of current space weather studies with a sound policy-oriented analysis that provides executives with a clear-eyed view of the stakes and requirements associated with the delivery of space weather services.

The study has been primarily prepared on the basis of an in-house analysis featuring a deep literature review of public documents, external and internal databases, conference proceedings and other bibliographic sources, spanning both S&T and policy aspects of space weather services. In addition, the research has greatly leveraged external contributions by relevant European and international stakeholders in the form of preliminary discussions and feedbacks on the study, as well as interviews and expert meetings. Finally, we carried out a peer review with external experts to validate research findings before finalisation of the report.

Why is Space Weather so important for Europe?

In Europe’s economy and society, a large number of sectors could potentially be affected by SWE storms. These range from satellite telecommunications, broadcasting, navigation and meteorological services, through to aviation, power distribution, and terrestrial communications. In space, space weather can impact most satellite systems, damaging them directly but also having a knock-on effect to the services they provide. Disruptions to the Galileo system, for instance, could have negative repercussions on a magnitude of sectors here on Earth, such as aviation, road transport, shipping, and other sectors reliant on PNT to function. The safety of astronauts could also be seriously affected by space weather. Moreover, space weather could also have an impact on technological systems and human health here on Earth: for instance, it could affect the electricity grids, pipelines, the rail and maritime transportation systems, aviation communication and control, air passenger health, mobile telephones, etc.

In short, extreme space weather events could disrupt a vast number of modern technological systems across a variety of sectors, the socioeconomic cost of which would be tremendous if not effectively addressed. In the European context, it is estimated that a single extreme space weather event, could cost Europe more than €14 billion across a number of sectors.

Because of this, there is a growing need for operational services to safeguard these sectors. Indeed, as our dependency on these critical infrastructures increases, the stakes associated with the delivery of SWE services are bound to become higher. Importantly, such stakes are not only associated with the mitigation of the potentially catastrophic impacts generated by major SWE events, but are more broadly connected to a series of strategic, commercial, societal and environmental objectives, including, for instance, the development of end-to-end European capabilities, access to sensitive data, the advancement of basic and applied research in critical areas, commercial opportunities, etc.

How is Europe handling the issue? Are European politicians and parliamentarians aware of it?

Interest in space weather is developing rapidly in Europe. As more and more European stakeholders – from scientists, to emergency management agencies, operators of critical infrastructures, etc. – recognise the importance of mitigating against the effects of space weather, political awareness and support is consistently increasing throughout the continent. At the same time, it does not go unnoticed that such awareness has thus far not been equally shared among European countries and across the different sectors possibly impacted by SWE. Political awareness proves indeed higher among countries located in northern and central Europe (Sweden, Norway, Finland, UK, Hungary, etc.), which have formally recognised the threat of extreme SWE by including it in their national strategic risk assessments. However, also countries with a comparatively lower domestic space weather risk gradually seem to be recognising the benefits of space weather research.

Consistent with this, over the past decade, most European countries have been actively contributing to the advancement of SWE research and many of them are now progressing on the R2O path. While most activities have been carried out by individual national agencies in a somehow disconnected way, a pan-European approach has recently emerged thanks to the efforts of ESA and the EU. Over the past decade, the EU has carried out many awareness raising activities and through its FP7 and H2020 programmes, it has funded over 30 research projects, which have led to key results in scientific research, models, and services development, and, more broadly, in supporting the R2O path.

As for ESA, with its SSA programme, the Agency has been pulling national assets and capabilities together into a federated virtual network for the delivery of space weather applications to end-users and has started the development of European SWE instrumentations/mission capabilities (most notably its L1/L5 mission).

Whilst the EU and ESA have generally operated separately in their SWE-related activities, their efforts have led to the development of important SWE assets in terms of ground- and space-based infrastructure, physics-based models, and databases, as well as data products providing applications to a variety of end-users. Notably, ESA’s network now offers more than 140 products providing scientific and pre-operational applications to different users. From an overall perspective, however, European SWE services, at both national and pan-European level, are still far from reaching the required level of maturity.

What level of demand do we have for Space Weather Services?

Given the transversal impact of SWE events, demand of space weather services is rather plethoric. The identification of the domains in which SWE services can be of use is generally derived from the general areas of impact of space weather. Generally speaking, it is possible to distinguish two macro-categories of domains: those relevant to space operations (spacecraft design, launch and spacecraft operations, human space flight, etc.) and those concerning ground operations: aviation, rail, resource exploitation, power grid operation, pipeline operation, and auroral tourism.

That said, it is worth highlighting that there are some outstanding issues in the financial aspects of the market development. Put in other words current efforts in demand analysis have focused purely on the application domains, on user identification and their requirements; however, there is still a lack of clarity as to who the customer a service will be, that is, who pays? This outlines a major gap to be addressed in SWE service provisions, the solution of which is dependent on the model of funding that is applied; i.e. services provided on a public or a private basis. Irrespective of whether the source of funding is private or public, the capacity to monetise such services still requires investigation, especially within the European context where clear cases for public good SWE services have been made.

What are your findings?

Several findings should be highlighted. First of all, the possibilities, frequencies and impact of SWE events should not be underestimated: our technological dependencies could imply catastrophic consequences if a major event would hit Earth. Also, due to our ever-growing dependence on technologies possibly impacted by space weather, the demand for operational services will expand further in the future, requiring greater maturity of the services to be delivered to end users.

Whereas European stakeholders have many remarkable achievements to look back on in this field, there are still some issues that need to be addressed to ensure the provision of fully-fledged services. More specifically, three major set of outstanding issues come to the fore. The most evident is of scientific and technological nature. Here, the major issues are associated with the maturity of the service’s constituent elements, namely the data, models and data products underpinning the targeted service. Hence, in the coming years there will be a need to address these issues, by filling data gaps (especially space-based observations), improving both empirical and physics-based modelling capabilities, and advancing product maturity and reliability through coordination among different service providers.

Another important set of obstacles persist in the demand/market dimensions of SWE services, and more precisely in their source of operational funding and identification of customers. Because a number of factors still prevent the emergence of a business case for commercial procurement/delivery of SWE solutions in Europe, it can be anticipated that, in the foreseeable future, SWE service provision will be conducted primarily under a public procurement model. However, it is also expected that, as the SWE demand gains traction, businesses may become willing to invest in the procurement (or delivery) of services that support their business continuity. This is especially the case of services related to events that occur with high frequency but have limited impact (e.g. radio black outs). Conversely, benefits may be perceived as too distant or intangible to set up a market for highly disruptive but low-frequency SWE risks, such as large geomagnetic storms. This type of services will likely continue to require sustained public investment.

A third set of issues concerns the definition of an appropriate organisational setting. As of 2019, there is still a lack of pan-European consensus on what institutional architecture should be entrusted with the responsibility for the operational services. Several options could be explored in this context.

What is important to highlight, however, is the need agree as soon as possible on a common strategic plan defining the responsibilities of the key players in Europe, enact an appropriate data policy and secure a sustainable funding and allocation scheme for service provision.

Finally, it is important to stress that the eventual delivery of operational SWE services will not per se suffice to mitigate against their effects. There will be also a need to know what to do once forecasts or alerts are provided. Since in the European context, there is still much uncertainty in matters related to SWE risk management, it would be appropriate to establish pan-European protocols and preparedness plans as well as European decision-making capability that could quickly respond to a SWE event.

The full report European Space Weather Services: Status and Prospects can be find here.

Marco Aliberti works as Senior Research Fellow at the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI) in Vienna, Austria, where he has carried out and published a number of research projects in the areas of access to space and human spaceflight, governance and International Relations of space, and Asia’s space programmes, particularly those of China, Japan and India. Prior to joining ESPI in October 2012, he conducted research activities in the field of security and East Asian Studies. Mr Aliberti graduated in Oriental Languages and Cultures at the University of Rome “La Sapienza”, and obtained a MA in International Relations from the Italian Diplomatic Academy (SIOI) in Rome. He also completed a Master of Advanced Studies in Space Policy and Institutions with the Italian Space Agency, SIOI and the National Research Council; Security Studies at the Institute of Global Studies – School of Government in Rome; as well as International Asian Studies at the University of Naples “L’Orientale”, with a specialisation in East Asian Relations.

SpaceWatch.Global thanks Marco Aliberti of ESPI for the interview.

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