Boffins building space detector to warn when alien dust wreaks havoc on Earth

Brit boffins are building a space weather detector to warn when alien dust is wreaking havoc on Earth.

Highly-charged particles from outer space have sent a passenger jet spiralling out of control, triggered power cuts, sparked fires and even rigged an election.

Solar winds – the electromagnetic forces that cause the northern lights – were the most likely culprit.

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The UK is now developing a £1.26 million early warning system that can detect such surges from the ground.

In 2003, alien particles penetrated the memory chip of a vote-counting machine in federal elections in Belgium and changed the result.

At first fraud was suspected when more votes were counted than there were people on the electoral roll.

An inquiry found space dust was to blame for contaminating the chip.

In 2008 a Qantas flight from Singapore to Perth went out of control for 23 seconds, plunged 690ft and injured a third of the passengers.

Investigators said cosmic rays striking flight computers were a possible cause.

They were similarly blamed for a power outage affecting six million in Quebec, Canada, and telegraph lines catching fire in New York.

The Earth's magnetic field usually protects the planet from solar winds – the beams of charged particles constantly flowing from the sun.

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But every so often a high-powered flare breaks through.

Lancaster University engineer Michael Aspinall, who is working on the detection team, said the effects of such space weather could be devastating.

"No electricity means no computers, no communication, no navigation. Planes would be grounded, satellites disabled, and mobile phones useless," he said.

While satellites monitor the sun's activity they cannot measure the interaction of solar flares with Earth's atmosphere.

Aspinall added: "Without these ground-level detectors the UK is really flying blind on the impacts of an extreme space weather event. We can't stop space weather events happening but if we know when they are coming we can prepare vulnerable sectors and help ensure that events of this kind are safely managed."

The new space weather monitor, which measures 6ft by 6ft, works by using helium-3 to detect charged particles.

The design, funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, is expected to be sited in Cornwall or Scotland and will stream information to the Met Office when it is up and running within two years.


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