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Space Weather Follow-On Program

July 24, 2020
Image of the earth and satellite orbiting it

As the Sun starts to transition into Solar Maximum, with an increased frequency of solar flares, NOAA is readying itself to address the increase in solar weather activity. The Space Weather Follow-On Lagrange-1 (SWFO L-1) Program recently awarded their satellite instrument contracts and are poised to continue the critical measurements needed to protect our society.

Space weather is one of the largest threats to modern society and is yet the least known. It has the ability to affect national security, such as power grids, GPS, aviation, satellites, and our economic well-being. According to a recent National Research Council report [2009], geomagnetic storm-disabled electric power grids and collateral impacts could result in projected economic and societal costs of up to $2 trillion dollars per extremely large storm, and full recovery could take 4-10 years.

Space weather is emitted from the Sun in the form of electromagnetic energy, such as visible light, radiation, and a flow of particles known as solar wind. While solar wind has few implications for space weather on Earth, faster and/or heavier structures can significantly disturb Earth’s outer atmosphere and space environment. The largest and longest-lasting structures are coronal mass ejections (CMEs), a phenomenon where the Sun’s surface becomes detached and travels through space.

On September 1, 1859, the world experienced its largest recorded solar storm, known as the Carrington Event. As a result of the extreme power produced, telegraph systems were knocked out and some caught fire, which obstructed communications around the globe. An event of this magnitude in today’s society could potentially disable global power grids, GPS, communications, and aviation systems.

In order to protect Earth from another space weather disaster such as the Carrington Event, multiple satellites are currently orbiting the Earth and Sun to measure and monitor incoming space weather data. These satellite missions such as NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), and the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have maintained observational continuity of real-time solar imagery and solar-wind measurements for solar weather forecasters.

The Director of NOAA’s Office of Projects, Planning and Analysis, Elsayed Talaat, Ph.D, states that “due to these current space weather missions having greatly exceeded their engineering life expectancy, there is a growing likelihood of a continuity gap in space weather data in the near future. Any gap will severely limit NOAA’s forecasting capability for space weather events to keep humans and life-saving property safe."

NOAA’s SWFO-L1 will maintain observational continuity of real-time solar imagery and solar-wind measurements and replace the two legacy missions - DSCOVR and SOHO. The SWFO-L1 observatory will be placed at the first Sun-Earth Lagrange point (L1) with the goal of providing images and data critical for the operations of the National Weather Service’s (NWS) Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) alerts and forecasting. Solar images obtained from SWFO-L1 will be used to identify CMEs directed towards Earth and calculate their time of arrival. Measurements of the solar wind’s magnetic field and the plasma speed and density will be used to rapidly calculate the starting time and intensity of the geomagnetic storms and other disturbances. “SWFO L-1 is part of the larger space weather efforts at NOAA, which includes observations at different vantage points. NOAA is currently developing plans for the next generation of space weather observing systems to follow SWFO L-1 and NOAA’s other geostationary assets,” said Dr. Talaat.

The users of the space weather information are numerous and diverse. They include the satellite industry providing telecommunications and navigation services, the electric power industry, commercial aviation, and many other sectors, as well as the U.S. Air Force and other defense units. SWFO-L1 will allow us to better understand and predict changes in solar weather which can ultimately help us avoid potential catastrophes similar to the Carrington Event. NOAA’s space weather mission will continue providing space weather advisories to keep the world and its assets safe.