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Space Weather, the Italian strategy

Following the drafting of the "U.S. National Space Weather Strategy & Action Plan", Italy has accepted the invitation to continue the dialogue by hosting an event on May 18, 2017

Space Weather is the physical and phenomenological state of natural space environments; the associated discipline aims, through observation, monitoring, analysis and modelling, at understanding and predicting the state of the Sun, the interplanetary and planetary environments, and the solar and non-solar driven perturbations that affect them; and also at forecasting and now-casting the possible impacts on biological and technological systems. 

Space weather is identified as a naturally occuring phenomenon that has the potential to cause substantial detrimental effects on a nation’s economic and social well-being. Space weather may disrupt satellite operations, communications, and electrical power grids, potentially resulting in cascade failures of key services. It may also significantly degrade critical infrastructure systems and technologies, with potential negative impacts on both health and safety across entire continents. 

The most recent evidence to the relevance of the phenomena has been offered in the United States by the “National Space Weather Strategy” and “National Space Weather Action Plan” dated October, 2015, followed by the executive order “Coordinating efforts to prepare the nation for space weather events” dated October, 2016.  Recently, several Congressmen introduced to U.S. Senate, bill S.141 on “Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act” (January, 2017). 

The Italian contribution to space weather research has been historically very strong, and characterized by a bottom-up approach. 

Several scientists from Italian Universities and Research Bodies such as INGV (National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology) and INAF (National Institute of Astrophysics) have a long standing involvement in Space Weather issues, as well as the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and Italian Air Force. In 2014 the Italian National Group for Meteorology of Space has been founded as interest group formed by scientists of both universities and national research institutions and by representatives of Italian Industries (SWICo, Space Weather Italian Community). 

Research centers, University and private companies are setting up a collaborative network that can help developing national scientific and technological research in different thematic areas related to space weather, e.g.: space physics, galactic and solar cosmic rays, geomagnetism, magnetosphere and ionosphere physics.

Determining the space weather conditions in the near-Earth environment, as well as in other planetary environments of our Solar System, is particularly challenging and requires as a first step the definition of key observable quantities. The discipline related to the circum-Terrestrial Space Weather investigations aims at: understanding the nature of the circum-terrestrial environment revealing the physics of its interactions with the solar wind, coronal mass ejections and solar energetic particles; forecasting and nowcasting the space environment variability around the Earth; predicting the impacts of space environment on technological systems on-board spacecraft, telecomunication satellites and/or eventually on humans.  

The thematic areas of scientific interest related to Space Weather include: Solar physics from photosphere to corona and solar irradiance; Interplanetary medium physics; Solar wind-magnetosphere coupling and plasma-exosphere interactions; Magnetospheric-ionospheric dynamics; Solar Energetic Particles physics: event analysis and modeling; Ground based magnetic field variations; Geomagnetically Induced Currents (GICs); Forecasting and nowcasting modelling. 

The Italian Air Force, jointly with INAF and INGV supported since 2012 the effort with the participation to the “Inter-Programme Coordination Team on Space Weather” (ICTSW) of the “United Nations World Meteorological Organization” (WMO). 

The Italian Space Agency (ASI) is considering the space weather as of outmost importance, and it is contributing to the ESA programs for the Space Situational Awareness, within which is also included the space weather; ASI is also becoming the focal point of the national initiatives related to both circum-Terrestrial and Planetary Space Weather investigations.  

Our modern technological infrastructure on the ground and in space are vulnerable to space-weather phenomena. The effects go beyond national boundaries, and active crisis in one country can easily be extended to cross-border critical infrastructures. The technological and economic recovery time can be very long. The most at-risk infrastructures include: electrical power-grid, transportation (in particular aviation and rail), telecommunications, GNSS, computer and electronic systems.

Since the society is increasingly depending on services provided by these critical infrastructures, it is important to gain some awareness of the threat, to ensure adequate preparation of the operators and society itself. The efforts of research, particularly in the United States and European Union, are focusing on the observation of phenomena and risk analysis, plans of prevention and resilience, threat and failure management, crisis response, recovery strategies.  

General objectives: Raise awareness of the potential impacts on critical infrastructures. Study the known vulnerabilities of the different types of critical infrastructure and identify the consequences resulting from the disruption of services and cascading effects. Discuss how the industry, research institutions and the government can operate, together with the international community, to prevent shutdowns and set up backup plans and response in the event of crisis. Identify the parameters we need to increase the resilience, redundancy and reduce risk. Promote and support dialogue, exchange of information and coordination between stakeholders. Develop national policies and frameworks to define the roles of agencies and institutions.  

Technological and Scientific objectives: Monitoring of solar activity and cosmic rays. Development of a forecasting and alert system. Protection and recovery systems for orbiting platforms and astronauts. Protection and recovery systems for ground infrastructures. Crisis management plans, both for operators and civil society.