Space weather centre ready for R90 million upgrade


SANSA’s Space Weather Regional Warning Centre in Hermanus, Western Cape Province, will become a 24/7 monitoring hub that provides vital space weather information to the international aviation industry.

The upgraded space weather centre will become a 24/7 monitoring hub that provides vital space weather information to the international aviation industry as well as other industries affected by space weather. IMAGE: SANSA.

The upgrade is made possible by a funding injection from the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), and forms part of SANSA’s five-year strategy to generate sustainable revenue from services. 

SANSA Managing Director, Dr Lee-Anne McKinnell, has been leading talks with the international aviation community to have SANSA host a space weather monitoring centre for civil aviation information since 2014. This after the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) started considering the importance of having space weather information be part of flight plans in civil aviation.

“Our ambition is to be the expert in space weather research and operations on the African continent,” says McKinnell. “We put together a business case to show that there was value in growing the capacity from what we currently offer, into a fully-fledged, 24/7 operational space weather centre.”

SANSA was chosen by the ICAO as one of two regional space weather centres to provide space weather services, including solar storm forecasts and warnings, to the global aviation sector. There are only five such centres in the world; three global and two regional.

“ICAO has given us three years to grow our capabilities to the level it needs to be to service the global aviation sector,” says McKinnell. “We’ve already started working with the aviation sector in South Africa, which includes Air Traffic Navigation Services and the South African Weather Services, and we have had conversations about the impacts that this would have on South Africa and Africa.”

In April 2018, the DSI first unveiled SANSA’s upgraded Space Weather Regional Warning Centre as a state-of-the-art facility, tasked with protecting Africa’s communication networks and national power grids from the dangers of space weather through timely warnings. 

The new R90 million upgrades to the facility will see the establishment of additional structures dedicated to 24/7 monitoring of space weather for civil aviation globally, and over the African region. “This is very exciting for us as we are growing the space weather capability of Africa,” says McKinnell.

“Our current space weather centre occupies a single room. With the new funding, we will erect a new building that will have a monitoring room, like a typical mission control centre, with big screens displaying real-time data, and additional 24/7 functionality.”

The upgrade will also include an auditorium for conducting training and awareness sessions on space weather, and additional offices for students and visiting researchers.

McKinnell adds that the upgrade is about moving from systems that were mainly used for research purposes, to systems that will be used for operations too. “The funding will also help us upgrade our communication links to our remote stations where we have identified priority space weather monitoring instruments, to ensure the space weather centre is able to provide high quality real-time data,” she says.

Along with the funding, the DSI has also promised SANSA a Research Chair in space weather, and there will be further career opportunities for skilled people. 

“We have already started the process to find the best person to join our research team at a very high level. The Research Chair will not only enhance Africa’s global position in space science research but will also drive the growth of solar physics in the country.”

Vaneshree Maharaj