The Sun Can Still Remind Us Who’s Boss

by Dr. Tony Phillips

Grab your cell phone and take a good long look.  It’s indispensible, right?  It tells time, surfs the web, keeps track of your appointments and, by the way, also makes phone calls. Modern people can hardly live without one.

One good solar flare could knock it all out.

“In the 21st century, we’re increasingly dependent on technology,” points out Tom Bogdan, director of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado. “This makes solar activity an important part of our daily lives.”

Indeed, bad space weather can knock out power systems, telecommunications, financial and emergency services—basically, anything that needs electronics to work.  That’s why NOAA is building a new fleet of “space weather stations,” the GOES-R satellites.

“GOES-R will bring our existing fleet of weather satellites into the 21st century,” says Bogdan.  “They’re designed to monitor not only Earth weather, but space weather as well.”

NOAA’s existing fleet of Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) already includes some space weather capabilities: solar ultraviolet and X-ray telescopes, a magnetometer and energetic particle sensors.  GOES-R will improve upon these instruments and add important new sensors to the mix.

One of Bogdan’s favorites is a particle detector named “MPS-Low,” which specializes in sensing low-energy (30 ev – 30 keV) particles from the sun.

Who cares about low-energy particles?  It turns out they can be as troublesome as their high-energy counterparts.  Protons and other atomic nuclei accelerated to the highest energies by solar flares can penetrate a satellite’s exterior surface, causing all kinds of problems when they reach internal electronics.  Low-energy particles, particularly electrons, can’t penetrate so deeply.  Instead, they do their damage on the outside.

As Bogdan explains, “Low-energy particles can build up on the surfaces of spacecraft, creating a mist of charge.  As voltages increase, sparks and arcs can zap electronics—or emit radio pulses that can be misinterpreted by onboard computers as a command.”

The Galaxy 15 communications satellite stopped working during a solar wind storm in April 2010, and many researchers believe low-energy particles are to blame. GOES-R will be able to monitor this population of particles and alert operators when it’s time to shut down sensitive systems.

“This is something new GOES-R will do for us,” says Bogdan.

The GOES-R magnetometer is also a step ahead. It will sample our planet’s magnetic field four times faster than its predecessors, sensing vibrations that previous GOES satellites might have missed.  Among other things, this will help forecasters anticipate the buildup of geomagnetic storms.

And then there are the pictures. GOES–R will beam back striking images of the sun at X-ray and extreme UV wavelengths. These are parts of the electromagnetic spectrum where solar flares and other eruptions make themselves known with bright flashes of high-energy radiation.  GOES-R will pinpoint the flashes and identify their sources, allowing forecasters to quickly assess whether or not Earth is in the “line of fire.”

They might also be able to answer the question, Is my cell phone about to stop working?

The first GOES-R satellite is scheduled for launch in 2015.  Check for updates. Space weather comes down to Earth in the clear and fun explanation for young people on SciJinks,

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.


In spite of Earth’s protective magnetosphere, solar storms can wreak havoc with Earth satellites and other expensive electronics on the ground.