It’s hot on the sun, for sure, but sometimes it’s also windy. Solar winds are incredibly powerful bursts of high energy particles, and when they explode toward earth, they can do major damage to electronic systems — especially if there’s no advanced warning. Miriam Sitz has the story of how we won’t be caught unawares, thanks to a new satellite making its way into space.
AMBI: T-minus 10, 9, 8…
The DSCOVR satellite is just four and a half by six feet in size. Human scale. But it’s got a big job.
AMBI: 3, 2, 1, and liftoff! Everything has gone just as planned. The deep space climate observatory is free to discover, on it’s way to the L1 Lagrange point where it will send data back to help protect those of us on planet earth.
The satellite launched last week from Cape Canaveral, and in a hundred days it’ll reach its destination — a point in space a million miles away from earth called L1.
Tom Berger is the director of the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado. His office is part of the DSCOVR mission team.
TOM BERGER: Yeah, the L1 point. “L” in that case stands for Lagrangian. So this is what we call the Lagrangian point, there are several of them, and they are gravitational balance points, if you will, between the earth and the sun.
Basically, if you put a satellite in a Lagrangian point, it’ll stay there on it’s own, constantly facing the sun while keeping it’s back to the sunlit side of the earth.
From that position, DSCOVR can detect solar winds. They are called coronal mass ejections.
TOM BERGER: Millions of tons of magnetic plasma heading out at a million miles an hour typically.
If solar plasma is shooting out into space? No problem. But sometimes, one of these ejections is pointed toward… us.
TOM BERGER: If that’s coming towards the earth, the interaction of that magnetic cloud with the earth’s magnetic field will trigger a large geomagnetic storm.
Such a storm can disturb telecommunications, GPS, airplanes, power grids — all sorts of electrical systems. So that’s why the satellite’s headed to L1 — to detect the storm before it reaches earth. There’s a very old NASA satellite at L1 already — it’s called ACE. DSCOVR is essentially the upgraded model, with some new features, that’s going to replace it.
TOM BERGER: I like to think of the ACE and DSCOVR satellites out there at L1 as kind of our tsunami buoys out there in the ocean of space.
DSCOVR will will transmit data to back Berger and his colleagues about the size, speed, and intensity of the impending shockwave. Soon, they’ll even be able to determine where on the planet a solar ejection will hit. That’s a new, and potentially extremely valuable feature.
DSCOVR’s data will give between 15 minutes and an hour of advance notice. That’s enough time for a pilot to drop her plane in altitude to avoid the magnetic storm, or for power grid operators to reroute or even shut off parts of the grid to prevent outages and damage.
In 1989, before the advanced warning system was in place, a massive geomagnetic storm caused a 9-hour blackout in Quebec. John Kappenman is an expert on these storms.
JOHN KAPPENMAN: They went from normal operating conditions to complete province-wide blackout in about 92 seconds.
And that’s not even a worst case scenario.
JOHN KAPPENMAN: The largest ones could be in fact nearly 10 times more intense than the March 1989 storm.
It’s not only industry folks who can monitor geomagnetic storm data. It’s all available online. Spaceweather.gov. Berger, director of the Space Weather Prediction Center, encourages teachers to use DSCOVR data with students.
TOM BERGER: An interesting classroom activity might be to keep track of these watches, warnings and alerts and when there is an incoming geomagnetic storm to have the class use their cell phones to measure the magnetic field
Of course, there’s an app for that — CrowdMag.
TOM BERGER: and watch the storm hit and see how good the forecast was for instance.
DSCOVR will start transmitting data by August — just in time for the new school year.
Miriam Sitz, Columbia Radio News.