Earth’s electrical grids will soon get a little more protection from solar eruptions.
After flying 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) since its Feb. 11 launch, the Deep Space Climate Observatory, DSCOVR for short, will look to the sun starting next month and warn people about solar ejections that can damage Earth’s magnetic field and disrupt the grids, global positioning systems and communications networks.
The satellite is part of a system that the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado, uses to warn power companies, airlines and other susceptible industries about potentially adverse conditions.
“It is probably one of the most important links in the chain,” said Howard Singer, chief scientist at the center, who likens the satellite to a warning buoy at sea. “If you don’t have the input, you cannot run the model that is going to tell you about the activity.”
DSCOVR is going through instrument checks that will take about a month, Singer said. When those are complete, the Earth will have 30 to 60 minutes’ notice on the composition of the next coronal mass ejection headed our way. Ejections are explosions of the magnetic fields and plasma from the sun. Hundreds occur each year depending on the sunspot cycle, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the vast majority don’t come Earth’s direction.
A disturbance of the magnitude of the 1859 Carrington Event, which caused the failure of telegraph systems in North America and Europe, could cost $1 trillion to $2 trillion in the first year and take four to 10 years to recover from, according to a National Research Council report.
Observers on Earth use telescopes, coronagraphs and other satellites to monitor the sun’s flares and ejections. The instruments in the satellite will help determine the makeup of the energy and predict where the worst impacts will occur.
“We won’t be able to say what is happening in New York City, but we can say what is happening on the East Coast,” Singer said.
Singer likened the satellite to hurricane hunters: air crews from the Air Force Reserve and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that fly into tropical systems in the Atlantic and eastern Pacific. The flights provide detailed information that improves forecasts of a storm’s strength and track.
Solar eruptions move much faster than hurricanes. In August 1972, a coronal mass ejection covered the 92 million miles from the sun in 14.5 hours, Singer said, and knocked out long-distance telephone service across Illinois.
The proliferation of electronic devices since then means “we have actually become more susceptible from the effects of space weather,” he added.
Mobile devices, electric grids and satellites are at risk. While Earth’s magnetic field protects people on the ground from being vaporized by these big events, astronauts, airline passengers and crews flying near the polar regions can get a dose of radiation.
DSCOVR will orbit at Lagrange Point 1, a position where the gravity of the Earth and the sun combine with its own motion to keep the satellite in place between the two. DSCOVR will watch and be struck by Earth-bound solar ejections, sending information to the Space Weather Prediction Center 30 to 60 minutes before they hit the planet, giving operators a chance to take preventive action.
That advance notice may be enough to save the grids and the networks.