The European Space Agency (ESA) has asked for studies be undertaken to design a mission to develop a satellite that would warn in advance of damaging solar storms that could hit the Earth.
The new project that is to be named "Lagrange" is planned to launch in the 2020s. UK scientists and engineers will play a leading role in developing instruments on board the spacecraft, the ESA has revealed.
The new mission will position a spacecraft at a fixed point away from the line between the sun and the Earth, known as the 5th Lagrange point.
The spacecraft is planned to monitor extreme space weather such as explosive eruptions
Can affect communication and power grids
Events such as these can act to disrupt modern technology by causing geomagnetic storms that can affect satellite operations and navigation, communication systems and power grids.
The satellite's observations would help increase the time available to prepare. Spacecraft, which are sited on the 5th Lagrange Point, which is a gravitational "sweetspot", do not have to use so much fuel to maintain their position.
But the real reason to use this location on an operational basis is that it is the perfect spot to see that part of the Sun which is about to rotate into view of the Earth.
"So, not only do you get a preview of the active regions and how complicated they are, but if the Sun throws something out you also get to track it from the side," explained British solar physicist Prof Richard Harrison.
"Imagine a fist coming directly at your face - it's difficult to say how far away it is; but if you see that fist from the side, it's much easier," BBC News reported him as saying.
In the past, there have been some extremely large geomagnetic storms that could cause significant damage to the modern electronic world. To cite a few events, in 1989, the eastern seaboard of the US and Canada were without power for a total of nine hours. In a 2003 space weather formation, it was forecast 10 percent of the entire satellite fleet suffered a form of abnormality, with Sweden experiencing a power blackout.
European member states to contribute
ESA has signed four contracts named Phase AB1 on Friday at its mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany for the project.
The mission will be led from Britain but European member states will be contributing. Airbus UK and OHB System of Germany will be conducting two parallel industrial studies to design the spacecraft bus and the procedure for integrating the satellite's instruments. The companies will also figure out how the entire mission will be managed.
Two contracts will be directed by British-led consortia, planning the actual design of the onboard instruments.
Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) Space will evaluate the requirements of "remote sensing package" of the mission. These are the instruments that figure out what the Sun is doing by looking at it. Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) of Britain will work out the instruments which investigate the Sun's activity through sensing emitted particles and magnetic fields.