The aurora borealis

Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition

Our team from the School of Engineering at Lancaster will be bringing their interactive space weather-themed display to the exhibition, showcasing their research project and the fascinating phenomena of space weather.

Our space weather project

Come and check out our interactive activities at our 'Monitoring extreme space weather’ exhibit at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, 6th - 10th July 2022, at Carlton House Terrance, London. The exhibition is expecting 17,000 visitors over the course of the week with a total of 16 projects on display.

Test your throwing arm and ‘upset' a computer with our Single-Event Upset (SEU) demo. Sixteen large, illuminated arcade buttons (each representing a single transistor/bit) are displayed in a grid for you to try and change their stored value by throwing a charged particle (stress ball). Will you be a big winner or a big loser?

Our other main interactive attraction is a gesture-controlled app. An opportunity for you to control the Sun’s solar wind and launch cosmic radiation towards Earth, testing your reaction speed. Watch as it travels the 150 million kilometre journey, interact with our atmosphere and result in detectable events on Earth! How extreme was your space weather event? Did it delay trains, cause satellites to go off course, cause power grids to fail or even cause the internet to crash?

What is space weather?

The Sun is constantly spewing out material into space, known as the Solar Wind. This is a stream of electromagnetic radiation and charged particles which travel at a million miles per hour (mph), sometimes towards Earth! The radiation that does reach Earth, is called cosmic radiation. This "space weather" can cause all sorts of issues for electrical equipment here on Earth.

What are the effects of space weather?

The charged particles from cosmic radiation can sometimes transfer their charge into the transistors inside digital devices. This changes that transistor’s stored charge, therefore changing whether it is holding a ‘one' or a ‘zero’ (known as a 'bit flip'), and changing the digital data being sent, received, stored or processed. This is known as a single-event upset (SEU). Just sixteen bits can produce 65,536 (2^16) unique codes. This could be 0 to 65,535 in decimal and represent the position of a computer game character, the number of votes recorded by a voting machine, or the altitude meter reading on an aircraft. Flipping just one of the sixteen bits would change the number from as little as one, to as much as 32,768 (2^15), either increasing or decreasing it!

Have these ever happened …?

This isn’t just theory, Super Mario once felt the effects of space weather during a Speedrun, a voting machine in Belgium registered an extra 4096 (2^12) votes in 2003 for one lucky candidate and an Airbus A330 passenger airplane once nosedived when the autopilot got hit by high-energy particles caused by cosmic radiation!

A solar flare

How is Lancaster helping?

One of the most important factors in protecting systems from space weather is predicting when they may happen. With enough time, power systems and electrical devices can be turned off preventing electrical surges which cause damage, satellites can be manoeuvred to reduce cross-sectional area limiting the damage. Prediction is based on detecting the energetic radioactive particles.

The first international network of ground-level neutron detectors was established in 1957 but there are now only around 50 active stations worldwide and none in the UK. Lancaster are developing a prototype of a smaller, cheaper detector called the Ground Level Enhancement Event Monitor, or GLEEM. GLEEM is a new-generation radiation detector intended to help protect safety-critical systems and national infrastructure against the effects of severe space weather.

Traditional monitors rely on detectors that are either no longer financially viable or use highly toxic materials. The team intend to employ detector technology recently developed as an alternative.

The development of the new design could lead to two monitors being installed and tested in the UK and ultimately a new UK network and technology that could help predict the worst effects of space weather events.

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