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Doing something about the solar weather.

On the morning of Thursday, Sept. 1, 1859, the English astronomer Richard Carrington was engaged in his usual sunny-day activity--studying a projection of the sun's surface on a screen and recording his observations by drawing the patterns he observed. At 11:18 a.m., he observed two beads of bright white light appearing above a group of sunspots. The lights faded within five minutes.

Hours later, intense auroras surrounded the Earth. The Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser reported Sept. 3 on what observers out late Thursday evening had witnessed: "The light appeared to cover the whole firmament, apparently like a luminous cloud, through which the stars of the larger magnitude indistinctly shone.... Between 12 and 1 o'clock [early Friday morning], when the display was at its full brilliancy, the quiet streets of the city resting under this strange light presented a beautiful as well as singular appearance."

The brilliant, strange, beautiful, and singular illumination resulted from the white-light solar flare Carrington had observed. In addition to providing what the Baltimore paper called a "magnificent display of the auroral lights," the flare disrupted the key high-tech communication system of the day--the telegraph--delivering shocks to operators and setting telegraph paper on fire.

Today's infrastructure is much more vulnerable. Doug Whiteley, a deputy director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said at a press conference in December that a large solar storm occurring today would have the potential to cause $1 trillion to $2 trillion in damages with a four- to 10-year recovery period.

But NOAA isn't just talking about the solar weather--it's doing something about it. If all goes according to plan, by the time this issue rolls off the presses, NOAA's Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) spacecraft will be heading toward the sun, destined to take up its position in an LI orbit 1 million miles from Earth 110 days after launch. There, it will take over the monitoring duties of NASA's 17-year old Advanced Composition Explorer research satellite.

Douglas Biesecker, DSCOVR program scientist at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center, said that starting in the fall, DSCOVR will begin serving the 44,000 individuals and organizations registered to receive timely, relevant, and actionable solar-activity information via email.

Whiteley described the readying of DSCOVR as "quite a journey." The satellite was built over a decade ago for a project named Triana that was subsequently canceled, and it had been stored at NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, MD. It has taken a joint effort of NOAA, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force to manage the project, refurbish the satellite, and ready DSCOVR for launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 v 1.1 launch vehicle.

In addition to carrying a plasma magnetometer for measuring solar-wind activity, the satellite will carry two Earth-observing instruments. Richard Eckman, NASA DSCOVR program scientist, said the instruments, constantly facing the solar-illuminated side of the Earth from LI, will provide a novel perspective, tracking volcanic plumes and permitting the study of ozone distribution while giving better estimates of aerosol properties and varying vegetation patterns due to drought, rain, and fire.

The multi-agency effort on the $340 million project illustrates the benefits of cooperation--in which NOAA funding of the spacecraft boosts its solar weather forecasting capability while NASA funding of the Earth-observation instruments will facilitate the processing and distribution of Earth science data.

The program promises to be a success for all involved--including the private SpaceX.

Rick Nelson

Executive Editor

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Title Annotation:EDITORIAL
Author:Nelson, Rick
Publication:EE-Evaluation Engineering
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2015
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