New satellite will watch for, warn about fierce solar weather

NASA/NOAA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) will offer warning system for big solar magnetic storms

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Credit: NASA

When it gets to its home in about 110 days, the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) will inhabit a unique location that will let it become America’s primary warning system for big solar magnetic storms headed towards Earth.

 According to the National Oceanic and Atomospheric Administration who will operate DSCOVR, data from the spacecraft’s three solar wind instruments, coupled with a new forecast model that is set to come online later this year, will let NOAA forecasters to predict geomagnetic storm magnitude on a regional basis. Geomagnetic storms occur when plasma and magnetic fields streaming from the sun impact Earth’s magnetic field. Large magnetic eruptions from the sun have the potential to bring major disruptions to power grids, aviation, telecommunications, and GPS systems, NOAA said.

dscovr logo noaa nasa usaf NASA

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“Located in line between the sun and the Earth, DSCOVR will be a point of early warning whenever it detects a surge of energy that could trigger a geomagnetic storm destined for Earth,” said Stephen Volz, Ph.D., assistant administrator for NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service. “According to the National Academies of Sciences, a major solar storm has the potential to cost upwards of $2 trillion, disrupting telecommunications, GPS systems, and the energy grid. As the nation’s space weather prediction agency, when DSCOVR is fully operational and our new space weather forecast models are in place, we will be able to provide vital information to industries and communities to help them prepare for these storms.”

DSCOVR essentially NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) function of monitoring solar wind but ACE remains in a supporting role and has enough fuel to operate until 2014, NASA said.

DSCOVR will perch in the L1 orbit, the neutral gravity point between the Earth and sun approximately one million miles from Earth. L1 is a good position from which to monitor the sun, because the constant stream of particles from the sun (the solar wind) reaches L1 about an hour before reaching Earth, NASA said. For space weather predictions, this means that the real-time data, the distribution of solar wind speed, will be about 100 times faster than existing spacecraft in this orbit, NASA said.

dscovr instruments NASA

Three instruments will help measure the solar wind on the DSCOVR mission: (shown from left to right), the Faraday cup to monitor the speed and direction of positively-charged solar wind particles, the electron spectrometer to monitor electrons, and a magnetometer to measure magnetic fields.

“From this position, DSCOVR will typically be able to provide 15 to 60 minute warning time before the surge of particles and magnetic field, known as a coronal mass ejection (or CME), associated with a geomagnetic storm reaches Earth. DSCOVR data will also be used to improve predictions of geomagnetic storm impact locations. Our national security and economic well-being, which depend on advanced technologies, are at risk without these advanced warnings,” NOAA stated.

DISCOVR also has two NASA Earth-observing instruments that will monitor ozone and aerosol amounts and measure changes in Earth's radiation.

“For example, DISCOVR’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera will provide information on a range of Earth properties, including ozone and aerosol levels, cloud coverage, and vegetation density – supporting a number of climate science applications. Meanwhile, National Institute of Standards and Technology Advanced Radiometer will take energy balance measurements that will improve our understanding of ways in which changes to the amounts of heat and radiation absorbed into our atmosphere from the Sun are affected by human activities as well as natural phenomena,” according to the White House Office of Science and technology’s website.

DISCOVR has had an interesting life having been built in the 1990s for a NASA Earth science mission known as “Triana.” The mission was cancelled and the satellite was stored NASA Goddard Space Flight Center until 2008 when the Committee on Space Environmental Sensor Mitigation Options (CSESMO) determined that DSCOVR was the optimal solution for meeting NOAA and U.S. Air Force space weather requirements.

Also of interest was the fact that a Space X Falcon 9 rocket launched DISCOVR and the first stage of the rocket was going to attempt to land on a recovery barge after dispatching its payload. But that plan was canceled and the ship made a soft landing in the ocean.  The company wrote: “The drone ship was designed to operate in all but the most extreme weather. We are experiencing just such weather in the Atlantic with waves reaching up to three stories in height crashing over the decks. Also, only three of the drone ship’s four engines are functioning, making station-keeping in the face of such wave action extremely difficult…... While extreme weather prevented SpaceX from attempting to recover the first stage, data shows the first stage successfully soft landed in the Atlantic Ocean within 10 meters of its target.  The vehicle was nicely vertical and the data captured during this test suggests a high probability of being able to land the stage on the drone ship in better weather.”

Space X is developing a reusable rocket system for its launches. The first attempt crashed.

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