Incoming! New Satellite Aims to Improve Crucial Solar Storm Warning

This article was originally published in the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences’ Spheres Magazine

In May 1921, a massive geomagnetic storm temporarily wiped out the top technology of the day, telegraph service. Today’s technology is just as susceptible to space weather events, which periodically sweep from the Sun toward Earth and can trigger geomagnetic storming. We are arguably more dependent than ever on technology, and more vulnerable to geomagnetic storms that can disrupt communication and navigation systems.

So a team of CIRES and NOAA researchers working at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC)—the nation’s official source of warnings and alerts about space weather and its impacts on Earth—are excited about a new satellite. The Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) is poised to improve the advanced warning systems that tell us when potentially destructive space weather is heading our way.

The team developed a ground processing system for the DSCOVR satellite, helping to ensure that space weather data from the new satellite flows 24/7 for users around the world who rely on it. The team completed the project on time and under budget, said NOAA’s Doug Biesecker, who successfully nominated the team for a CIRES Outstanding Performance Award. Biesecker is the DSCOVR program scientist in SWPC.

Geomagnetic storms occur when Earth’s magnetosphere is temporarily disturbed by a coronal mass ejection—a huge burst of magnetic field and plasma from the surface of the Sun. These storms create beautiful aurorae, but can also cause harm: power outages; disrupted radio transmissions impacting airlines, mariners, and emergency responders; damaged satellites; and interrupted or degraded GPS navigation, which affects oil drilling, surveying, precision agriculture, and aviation.

NASA’s Advanced Compositional Explorer (ACE) was previously the only satellite providing early detection of imminent geomagnetic storming. The agency designed ACE for a lifespan of only three years—it’s 18 today.

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NOAA’s Monty Spencer inside the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado. Photo: Will von Dauster/NOAA

“In spacecraft years, that’s pretty ancient,” said CIRES scientist Alysha Reinard, who worked on the team that developed DSCOVR’s ground processing system.

“We rely on it [ACE] heavily, so having a replacement for it has been very important,” said Reinard. “DSCOVR is that replacement.”

DSCOVR launched in February 2015 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and it reached its intended position between the Sun and Earth, dubbed the Lagrangian Point, or L1, in early June. Now, the satellite is working through required testing and evaluation before going operational in March 2016.

Similar to ACE, DSCOVR will be able to provide 15- to 60-minute advance warnings of solar storms, but the new satellite will offer more robust data and better continuity of coverage than ACE. SWPC scientists believe the new satellite will improve geospace models, which space weather forecasters use to model Earth’s magnetosphere.

“Your model is only as good as what you’re putting into it,” said Michele Cash, also a CIRES scientist who works in SWPC. Cash is developing operational products that will use real-time DSCOVR data to enhance space weather forecasting. These products include an estimate of L1-to-Earth propagation time (the time it will likely take a blast of solar wind or a coronal mass ejection to get from DSCOVR to Earth) and also a geomagnetic storm prediction product, which can identify and predict the occurrence, duration, and strength of large geomagnetic storms—a first for SWPC.

The full award-winning team is: Michael Burek, Michele Cash, Tom DeFoor, Ratina Dodani, Richard Grubb, Jeff Johnson, and Alysha Reinard, all CIRES scientists working in SWPC.

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