THE BLOG

Keeping America Safe -- From a Million Miles Away

02/17/2015 05:06 pm ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015

When it comes to keeping America's communities and businesses safe and secure, we can't take our eyes off the sun. That vigilance is ensured with last week's successful launch of DSCOVR -- the Deep Space Climate Observatory. DSCOVR will operate 24/7, alerting forecasters when large magnetic eruptions are headed toward Earth from the red-hot star at the center of our solar system.

The need for DSCOVR, a NOAA space weather observing satellite, is critical. From sporadic solar flares to electrically-charged blasts of gas exploding from the sun at up to 6,000,000 miles per hour, "space weather" has the potential to severely disrupt our lives and livelihoods. A range of technologies is threatened, from telecommunications and power grids to the countless GPS applications vital to our daily lives and national and local economies. In an increasingly wired world, space weather poses serious risk to essential, yet vulnerable infrastructure.

The scale of vulnerability is daunting. In 2013, a Lloyds of London study predicted that the most extreme space weather storms could affect 20 to 40 million people in the U.S. and cause up to $2.6 trillion in damages, with recovery taking up to two years. A 2013 US Department of Energy report found that by triggering cascading failures across multiple infrastructures and systems space weather could have broad regional or even global impact.

While space weather storms tend to peak in roughly 11-year cycles, these events can be random. DSCOVR's launch from Cape Canaveral offers vast benefits to America's communities and businesses already wrestling with the hazards of severe weather and accelerating challenges from climate change. Investing in DSCOVR as a steadfast sentinel to warn of dangerous disturbances in the solar wind reflects NOAA's and the Administration's commitment to increasing our nation's resiliency through Earth monitoring and sound science.

DSCOVR's observations, for instance, will provide continuous environmental intelligence to protect the stability of power grids. Such environmental intelligence can mean the difference between keeping the lights on, and a blackout like the one in 1989 that left millions of Canadians in the dark for up to nine hours and the similar blackout that struck Swedish residents in 2003. It can make a life-saving difference in emergency response, and in access and accuracy to information for everyone relying on GPS services.

NOAA, NASA and the Air Force worked together to get DSCOVR off the ground, and the mission is not just to monitor the sun and its dangerous emissions. A NASA instrument called EPIC will capture the entire sunlit side of Earth in one image. Because DSCOVR will orbit a location four times further than the Moon's orbit -- one million miles from Earth -- it will be able to capture this image. In contrast, most Earth observing satellites circle our planet within 22,300 miles. A second instrument, the National Institute of Standards and Technology's NISTAR, will drive our understanding of climate science, providing important information about the amount of solar energy Earth is retaining or radiating back into space. These unprecedented observations will yield valuable insights about Earth's energy balance, weather, climate, hydrology and ecology. DSCOVR's data will be freely available to the public, opening the door to benefits for U.S. communities and local and national economies that we can barely imagine.

DSCOVR is an outstanding contribution to the Earth monitoring tools that will help make America and our world more resilient.