Did you know there is weather in space?
The term “space weather” generally refers to conditions resulting from solar activity that can potentially affect Earth, our atmosphere, and the near-Earth space environment. Fortunately, our planet’s magnetic field helps protect us from the constant stream of charged particles emitted from the Sun, but occasional eruptions of radiation and matter can disrupt our power grids and communications systems, as well as impact satellite operations and GPS navigation capabilities. Astronauts operating outside our planet’s protective atmosphere have to be very careful of exposure to the extra radiation, which can cause a variety of health problems.
Part of NOAA’s mission is to monitor space weather and provide timely, accurate warnings to help our nation prepare for and minimize potential impacts to the economy and to human health. The National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) develops and operates satellites and tools to collect information about solar phenomena before they reach Earth. NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) then uses this data to generate space weather forecasts, alerts, and warnings to the public and to more than 50,000 customers who use this information to protect critical systems and reduce risks to personnel.
SWPC continuously monitors the Sun and the space environment around the Earth, primarily using observations and measurements collected by instruments on satellites operated by NESDIS and partners like NASA.
How do we monitor space weather?
NOAA’s space weather observing systems primarily involve the following instruments.
- The GOES-R satellites, which carry numerous instruments for solar imaging and space weather monitoring:
- The Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite, which houses:
NOAA also collects space weather data from a variety of other sources, including NASA and international partners such as EUMETSAT, whose METOP satellites carry NOAA’s solar-monitoring Space Environmental Monitor (SEM-2) instrument.
Satellites must endure the incredibly harsh environment of space. As NOAA’s fleet ages, technology is also improving.
NOAA’s Space Weather Follow-On (SWFO) program consists of two projects that will ensure that the agency has the best and most reliable information about solar activity, detailed below.
- The SWFO-L1 satellite mission will use a suite of instruments to make in-situ measurements of the solar wind thermal plasma and magnetic field, as well as a Compact Coronagraph (CCOR) instrument to detect CMEs.
- A new CCOR instrument will also be added to the GOES-U satellite's suite of instruments, the last iteration of the GOES-R series.
Even further down the line, the Geostationary Extended Observations (GeoXO) mission will continue and expand observations provided by the GOES-R series through 2055. The GeoXO series, the next generation of NOAA’s geostationary satellites, will also host NOAA's most advanced space weather instruments, and its ground system will provide services for NOAA’s deep space weather satellites.
Further Reading on Space Weather/Activity
The Sun is Earth’s nearest star—a giant orb of hydrogen and helium about 93 million miles away. To many people, it looks like the same constant ball of light day after day as it moves across the sky. However, our Sun actually goes through a cycle of increasing and decreasing activity that lasts for about 11 years.
Over the course of the Sun’s 11-year solar cycle, the star goes through a period of increased and decreased activity. When this activity ramps up, sometimes phenomena such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), where massive amounts of radiation and solar particles erupt out from the Sun’s surface, can wreak havoc if our planet happens to be in the way of the blast.
As an agency, NOAA’s science isn’t just limited to Earth and its atmosphere. NOAA’s reach goes from the surface of the Sun to the depths of the ocean floor as we work to keep the public informed of the changing environment around them. So, what sort of instruments help scientists detect what’s going on in the Sun in the first place?
NOAA is planning an advanced satellite that will improve forecasts and warnings for potentially damaging solar activity while perched in a Sun-facing orbit a million miles from Earth.
In 2017 and 2020, NOAA commissioned an economic benefit analysis report on the positive effects of space weather on the electric power and aviation industries, as well as global navigation. Read more about their findings below:
- August 2020 - Economic Benefit Analysis of NOAA’s Space Weather Products and Services to the Electric Power Industry
- September 2017 - Social and Economic Impacts of Space Weather in the United States
In March 2020 the Congressional Budget Office released a report that discusses a range of threats that could cause widespread, long-lasting disruptions for the electric grid.
On October 16, 2020, the Solar Ultraviolet Imager (SUVI) instrument onboard GOES East observed two solar flares and several eruptions from the surface of the Sun. Flares are brief intense flashes of light that are often associated with sunspots, or dark blotches on the Sun with high magnetic concentrations, that scientists use to track solar activity over the course of the solar cycle.
At 3:24 a.m. EST on May 29, 2020, the Solar Dynamics Observatory, operated by our partners at NASA, captured the largest solar flare, or eruption of radiation on the surface of the sun, since October 2017. The flare can be seen on the upper left side of the sun’s horizon.