Mpho Tshisaphungo

Keeping an eye on space weather

The most powerful solar flare in 12 years erupted on the sun on 6 September 2017, flinging superheated gases into the solar system and towards Earth. But what many in the public consider an incredible occurrence is just another day at the office for Mpho Tshisaphungo. This Space Weather Practitioner at the South African National Space Agency is part of a team keeping a close eye on our life-giving but temperamental star.

Mpho Tshisaphungo works as a Space Weather Practitioner at SANSA in Hermanus. This involves monitoring the local effects of space weather at the Space Weather Centre.

Tshisaphungo cut her teeth doing a BSc in Mathematics and Physics at the University of Venda, and never saw herself doing this kind of job until a space science winter school at SANSA in Hermanus captured her curiosity and never let go.

“Learning about space science and technology opened up a whole new world for me, and I was fascinated,” she says. “During the winter school I spent a lot of time with the SANSA researchers who recognised my potential and offered me an opportunity to continue my studies.”

The recent solar flare demonstrates a typical day for Tshisaphungo, who prepares a space weather bulletin every day after making sure SANSA’s space weather information display is up to date. “Every day I check various images of the Sun for active regions that could produce solar flares.”

She also looks at solar wind data as it has a direct influence on the Earth’s magnetic field. “I check the measurements of the Earth’s magnetic field to see if there has been any disturbance,” she says.

Tshisaphungo constantly monitors radio wave propagation conditions that affect high frequency communication. The burst of radiation from the recent solar flare was so intense that it caused high frequency (HF) radio blackouts affecting mostly Africa and Europe.

“It is fascinating to see how dynamic the Sun can be on a day-to-day basis. Every day I learn something new in my quest to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of our Sun,” she says. “One thing is for sure, the Sun is always full of surprises!”

Since space weather is a fairly new field of research on the continent, Tshisaphungo hopes that her work will help develop knowledge of the field in Africa and the rest of the world.

She says a highlight of her job is that she gets to travel around the globe and rub shoulders with international space weather experts.

Tshisaphungo has in the past represented SANSA at the European Space Weather Week:  “It’s a great honour to represent South Africa and have an opportunity to showcase our potential and expertise to the rest of the world.”

“Another highlight was being selected as a member of the South African national working group for the Scientific Committee on Solar-Terrestrial Physics and the Committee on Space Research,” she says.

Tshisaphungo enjoys the responsibility of organising space weather courses and training programmes as well as participating in meetings with organisations in SA and around the world.

“I also enjoy leading some of the international project collaborations and making sure that the work I do contributes towards achieving SANSA’s goals.”

Vaneshree Maharaj