Failure of Aging Satellites Could Leave U.S. Partially Blind to Space Weather

Diagram of DSCOVR spacecraft. (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Tne failures of three aging satellites the United States relies upon to forecast space weather could leave the nation partially blind to electromagnetic storms that could severely disrupt electrical grids, communications systems, aviation and Global Positioning System (GPS) dependent navigation.

“The observations that we rely on to provide alerts and warnings are critical. Should we lose some of the key spacecraft that we talk about, I won’t say we’re blind but we’re darn close. It will impact our ability to support this nation’s need for space weather services. And I don’t want to see that happen,” said William Murtagh, director of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

Murtagh made the remarks in recent testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The committee held a hearing on the government’s effort to monitor space weather, track satellites and debris in Earth orbit, and defend the planet against asteroid and comet impacts.

Space weather is a result of sunspots erupting from magnetically stressed areas on the sun. The magnetically charged particles cause disruptions when they interact with the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field.

“We have no real capability to predict when those sunspots are going to occur,” Murtagh said. “So, we could be sitting today very quiet, and two days from now have a major sunspot cluster evolve. So, that’s a big drawback in our ability to predict this stuff.”

The United States has three aging satellites capable of monitoring solar flare emissions and providing warnings to electrical grid operators and other industries that would be affected. The satellites include:

  • Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), launched in February 2015;
  • Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), launched in August 1997; and,
  • Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) , a NASA/ESA spacecraft launched in December 1995.

DSCOVR, which measures the solar wind, has been operating in safe mode since June 2019 because of a problem with its laser gyroscope. Murtagh said the issue has been addressed, and that the satellite will be back in operation in early March.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) expressed concern about the chronograph aboard SOHO. The instrument is a potential single-point failure on the 24-year old spacecraft, which observes solar eruptions.

NOAA is developing the Space Weather Follow-On (SWFO) program, which is set for launch in 2024. Sen. Cantwell asked whether the mission could be launched earlier.

“Mark me down as somebody who wants to be more aggressive in this space. I think this is data and information, and we should be as aggressive as we can possibly be,” she said.

Murtagh said it is crucial that SWFO launches in 2024. He noted the fuel supply aboard the ACE satellite, which measures the solar wind, should keep the spacecraft operational into 2025.

The twin Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) satellites, which were launched in 2006, will drift back toward a position near Earth within several years, Mertagh added. The spacecraft provides stereoscopic imaging of the sun and solar mass ejections.

NASA Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen pointed to several ]recently launched space missions that are improving our understanding of the sun and its impacts on the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field. The missions include:

  • Parker Solar Probe, launched in August 2018, is traveling through the Sun’s atmosphere;
  • Solar Orbiter, an ESA/NASA mission launched on Feb. 10, will providing information about coronal heating and the source of the solar wind; and,
  • Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) mission, launched in October 2019, is studying how space weather affects the ionosphere from Earth orbit.

“Looking to the future, the Heliophysics Division is beginning to implement the Geospace Dynamics Constellation (GDC) which will study the top-most region of the atmosphere that shields Earth’s surface from solar radiation,” Zurbuchen said in his written testimony.

“In this region, there are >20,000 objects orbiting, including the International Space Station, weather, communications, and other operational Government assets. These assets may be adversely impacted when exposed to solar and geomagnetic activity,” the document added.

Murtagh said the world narrowly avoided a serious space weather event in 2012 when a massive solar eruption occurred on the other side of the sun.

“We believe that that particular event was similar to a big event that occurred in 1859,” he added. “And it would have a significant impact on Earth, especially the electrical power grid.”

The two-day 1859 solar storm, also known as the Carrington Event, shorted out telegraph systems across North America and Europe. Sparks flew from telegraph pylons, and some operators received electric shocks when they tried to send messages. Nighttime auroras where so bright people could read by them.

Murtagh said the Space Weather Operations, Research, and Mitigation (SWORM) Working Group, formed by the Obama Administration in November 2014, has been working to improve the nation’s ability to forecast and respond to future events.

SWORM, which includes representatives from 20 agencies, worked to formulate the National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan issued by the Trump Administration in March 2019.

Separate bills are now pending in the Senate and the House to address space weather, orbital debris and related issues. Murtagh said the legislation would codify many of elements of the space weather action plan.

The Senate bill would give the Commerce Department where NOAA is located authority over monitoring space weather and objects in Earth orbit. The Office of Space Commerce (OSC) would be elevated to a bureau with a larger budget that would report directly to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

The Trump Administration has requested a major boost for OSC’s budget from $2.3 million to $15 million for fiscal year 2021.

The House bill has different provisions and leaves open the question of whether Commerce or the Department of Transportation should oversee these issues.