NOAA looks to sharpen solar storm forecasts with new satellite

A 2014 solar flare as observed by NASA. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is looking to improve solar weather forecasts with a new satellite set to launch June 25, 2024.

A 2014 solar flare as observed by NASA. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is looking to improve solar weather forecasts with a new satellite set to launch June 25, 2024. Photo courtesy: NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory

The agency’s GOES-U satellite, scheduled to launch next month, will include an advanced instrument, called a compact coronagraph, to provide scientists with faster, more reliable data about solar storms.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s most advanced geostationary weather satellite will include the country’s first operational coronagraph, providing scientists with more precise space weather forecasting.

During a media briefing on Wednesday, government officials and industry partners previewed the planned June 25 launch of GOES-U, the fourth and final iteration in NOAA’s latest series of Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites. Once in orbit above Earth, GOES-U will be renamed GOES-19.

Lockheed Martin is the primary builder of the satellite with L3Harris providing much of the ground support capabilities and instrumentation. The satellite will be launched into orbit by SpaceX.

The GOES satellites include a variety of technologies that track planetary and space weather conditions across the western hemisphere, including tools to monitor and detect hurricanes, wildfires, lightning strikes and other environmental conditions. GOES-U will also include a new instrument, called a compact coronagraph, or CCOR, that will more precisely measure solar activity. 

The CCOR on GOES-U will represent an upgrade from the solar instruments on other NOAA satellites. Jordan Gerth, a meteorologist in the NOAA National Weather Service Office of Observations, said the tool “will detect the white light of the upper solar corona — the outer layer of the sun — and deliver imagery back to Earth for use at our Space Weather Prediction Center.”

The strongest geometric storm in more than two decades occurred several weeks ago, resulting in millions of Americans from Maine to Florida witnessing a rare showing of the aurora borealis. Space weather, however, can also affect key infrastructure services across the globe, requiring satellites like GOES-U to provide advance notice of impending interference. 

Elsayed Talaat, director of NOAA’s Office of Space Weather Observations, noted that the recent solar storm affected farmers’ ability to precisely plant crops because it impacted the accuracy of their GPS systems. He added that warnings about the impending solar activity also allowed grid operators to take precautionary measures to avoid power outages.

Talaat said the CCOR — working in tandem with other sensors on board GOES-U that are designed to observe solar activity — will allow NOAA to “see and sense the solar wind, solar flares and coronal mass ejections that can send billions of tons of highly magnetized material hurtling towards Earth at several million miles an hour.”

Once operational, Talaat said the CCOR “will deliver imagery of coronal mass ejections to Earth within 30 minutes of taking the image in outer space.” This is a vast improvement over NOAA’s current system, he added, which can take up to 8 hours to send collected information back to Earth.

“The data will serve as a primary source of information about impending geomagnetic storm conditions,” Talaat said, adding that it will provide NOAA with the ability to better predict conditions and issue relevant watches and warnings one to four days in advance of any activity.