NOAA Prepares For Better Solar Storm Forecasting

The DSCOVR spacecraft with its solar arrays extended in a Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Image Credit: NASA

The DSCOVR spacecraft with its solar arrays extended in a Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Image Credit: NASA

October 3, 2014 – With the launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite mission, the United States will extend its ability to give accurate warnings of solar activity that could potentially wreak havoc on Earth. The refrigerator-sized satellite is scheduled to soar into orbit in early 2015 from Capa Canaveral, Florida, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

DSCOVR will maintain the real-time solar wind monitoring capabilities which are critical to the accuracy and lead time of NOAA’s space weather alerts. Without timely and accurate warnings, space weather events like the geomagnetic storms caused by changes in solar wind have the potential to cripple electrical grids, disrupt communication systems, throw off GPS navigation, affect satellite operations and endanger human spaceflight.

“We must always stay on top of developing solar storm activity and provide accurate, timely forecasts,” said Mike Simpson, the DSCOVR program manager at NOAA. “DSCOVR will extend our capability to do that.”

Solar wind is the constant stream of charged particles and magnetic fields emitted from the sun. Solar wind carries with it a sheet of plasma surrounding a stretched, distorted magnetic fold that generates, roughly, from the sun’s magnetic equator. Geomagnetic storms affect Earth’s magnetic field and are often caused by solar wind shock waves.

Currently, NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), launched in 1997, is the only spacecraft providing solar storm data to the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, Colorado, for operational short-term warnings of solar storms. ACE is currently operating 10+ years beyond its design life.

DSCOVR will succeed ACE’s role in supporting solar wind alerts and warnings from 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.

From this position, DSCOVR will typically enable NOAA to provide 15 to 60 minute warning lead times before the impact of a solar storm hits Earth. DSCOVR data will also be used to improve predictions of geomagnetic storm impact locations.

“The instruments on DSCOVR will improve upon what we have with ACE, as they will continue to operate even during severe space weather storms. The DSCOVR data will also be used to drive the next generation of space weather models, allowing forecasters to specify where on Earth the storm conditions will be at their worst,” said Doug Biesecker, DSCOVR program scientist at SWPC.

Formerly known as Triana, DSCOVR was initially conceived in the late 1990s as a NASA Earth science mission that would provide a near continuous view of Earth and would image Earth in 10 spectral bands to measure how much energy was being reflected and emitted from Earth.

The mission was canceled and the satellite was put into storage at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in 2001. Seven years later, NOAA and the Air Force had DSCOVR removed from storage for testing and subsequent refurbishing. That same year, the Committee on Space Environmental Sensor Mitigation Options (CSESMO) determined that DSCOVR was the optimal solution for meeting NOAA and USAF space weather requirements.

NOAA funded NASA to refurbish the DSCOVR satellite and instruments. The U.S. Air Force is funding and overseeing the launch of the spacecraft. The DSCOVR program received full funding with the FY 2014 appropriations.

The last steps before launch include the completion of the spacecraft environmental testing, testing of the ground system, and delivery of the launch vehicle.

NOAA will operate DSCOVR from its NOAA Satellite Operations Facility in Suitland, Maryland and distribute the date to its users and partner agencies. NOAA will process the space weather data, providing products and forecasts through the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado, and archive the data at the NOAA National Geophysical Data Center also in Boulder. NASA is responsible for processing the Earth sensor data.