The United States currently has four primary solar observation satellites keeping vigil on the activity of the Sun. They are ready to observe and test dangerous solar flares that might cripple anything that would be at risk with an electromagnetic pulse. Without them, we are left to stand on the shore of space, watching every flicker of the Sun and hoping it isn’t signaling our doom.
These four satellites do more than observe the Sun. Their orbit is at the L1 Lagrange Point directly between the Earth and the Sun. A point where Earth’s gravitational influence equals the Sun’s. These satellites will experience anything the Sun throws at Earth, hours before we will receive it.
However, all four of these satellites are operating beyond their planned lifespan and most are using technology that predates smartphones. We risk being blindsided by solar storms at the same time we are about to enter another solar maximum.
NOAA Space Weather Program Manager William Murtagh made a sheepish attempt to warn a Congressional committee in February of 2020 by saying that they would be “hurting a little bit” if one of the key satellites failed.
Solar Observation Satellites Today
Currently, the United States has the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), and the Wind solar wind observatory. All three are beyond their planned mission time. DSCOVR is approaching seven years of operation of a five-year planned mission. ACE has over 24 years of operation for a planned five-year lifespan. Finally, the Wind satellite has been operational for over 27 years of a three-year planned mission.
The U.S. teamed with the European Space Agency (ESA) for the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) satellite that offers near real-time imaging of the Sun in multiple wavelengths on its website to the public. That satellite was launched in 1995 for a planned two-year mission. It has been in operation for 26 years.
There is one additional mission that was intended on giving Earth a 360° view of the Sun using two satellites, one positioned ahead of Earth’s orbit and one behind. The Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO A & B) pair of satellites were launched in 2006. STEREO B was positioned to see the activity of the Sun prior to it rotating towards Earth. STEREO A was positioned to observe the activity after it moved beyond Earth’s view.
Of the two satellites, STEREO B was critical in giving scientists on Earth advance warning of hazardous solar activities; however, we lost contact with that satellite in 2016. Both satellites exceeded their two-year expected lifespan and STEREO A is still in operation.
20+ Year Old Technology
In 2001, Windows XP was released. That program is newer than three of the four primary solar observation satellites currently in service. Smartphones didn’t even exist in the late 1900s and yet, pre-2000 technology is what we currently depend on for early warning of hazardous solar activity.
NASA has been able to squeeze every byte of usability out of our aging satellites but we are at risk of losing most, if not all, of our current solar observation capabilities. Between simple deterioration and future solar storms, we are gambling the safety of our planet with nothing to replace our eyes on the Sun until 2024 at the earliest.
Cameras, communications, and satellite technology have dramatically changed since the end of the 20th century. Our need for updating and upgrading our space-based solar observation abilities has become critical.
The Money Problem
Both liberal and conservative politicians have made their careers on defunding our key space programs. Conservatives have done the most damage in the aerospace field by slashing NASA programs that don’t blow up or ram something while also filling NASA with people who bend to their will.
At the same time, conservatives have drained the federal government of money for publically controlled space programs and given it to commercial space programs that shield their operations from public scrutiny. The result has been to create Soviet-like space programs that seek to profit off reinventing what we were already able to do decades ago with a government-run space program.
A Perfect Storm
The risk of a severe coronal mass ejection (CME) that would overload our satellites, electrical transmission wires, cars, computers, phones, etc., increases during the solar maximum that occurs approximately every eleven years. Scientists have been surprised by the early start of the new solar cycle that will reach maximum activity around June of 2023.
Aging satellites, outdated technology, lack of funding for replacement satellites, and an increased risk of solar activity, all create the perfect storm of factors that could lead to the United States having a reduced capability to issue warnings of severe solar weather. In fact, we are probably already too late to do anything about it.