A US satellite that offers the only advance warnings of incoming solar storms is more than a decade past its expected orbital lifetime and is possibly on its last legs, researchers say.
Stationed around 1 million miles from Earth. NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer satellite, nicknamed ACE, cautions about incoming high-energy particles from the sun which can wreak havoc on radio, GPS, satellite communications that are now embedded in modern life.
“It would be a very bad day for us if that spacecraft was not working,” the Discovery News quoted William Murtagh, program coordinator for NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., as saying.
“When an eruption occurs on the sun, there are still quite a few question marks as to if it’s going to hit the Earth and when it’s going to hit the Earth,.”
Until the sun’s free-flying and highly energetic outbursts, known as coronal mass ejections, hit the ACE spacecraft, forecasters are not acquainted with the orientation of their embedded magnetic fields.
Depending on the polarity, or alignment, Earth’s magnetic shield will either peel away, giving the highly charged particles more freedom to disturb electrically sensitive equipment and communications, or rebuff the particles, like what happened during this week’s outburst.
NOAA has asserted that over 22,000 utility operators, airlines, satellite owners, GPS users and others are signed up to receive space weather alerts and millions more get the information on NOAA’s website.
“ACE is a single point of failure and it’s old,” Murtagh said.“Every time I have a space weather storm I cringe a little bit that our very own space weather satellite doesn’t succumb to the storms I’m relying on it to help forecast.”
Another satellite with space weather sensors was slated to be launched in 2003 by the doomed shuttle Columbia crew, but the spacecraft, known as Triana, was nixed by the Bush administration as it was supported by former vice president and Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore.
Gore championed the spacecraft for its ability to incessantly relay live pictures of Earth from the vantage point of 1 million miles away in space, in hopes that the global view of the blue planet would rally environmental awareness.
“There were no technical reasons why it couldn’t go. We were getting ready to send it the Cape (Kennedy Space Center) for launch and we got an order that the mission was not going to go,” project scientist Adam Szabo, with NASA’s Heliospheric Physics Laboratory at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said.
After its ride was called off, Triana was put into storage at Goddard. It is presently undergoing checkouts and refurbishments in preparation for rebirth as NOAA-operated space weather sentry.
Launch is targeted for June 2014. The sun’s 11-year solar cycle is expected to peak in May 2013. Heightened solar activity, which is ramping up this year, will carry on for nearly the next six years.