NOAA Administrator Warns of Greater Disruption from Solar Maxima in 2012

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Increased solar activity anticipated in 2012 is not likely to be markedly different from previous solar maxima, but this one has the potential to cause more disruption because businesses and individuals rely heavily on the electric grid, GPS, satellite communications and other technologies that may be affected by solar storms, the leader of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said Dec. 7. “There is concern that extreme solar events might have devastating impact on the U.S.,” NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said.

NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), a mission launched in 1997 to monitor solar winds, remains in excellent health with enough fuel to operate “until at least 2020,” said Adam Szabo, ACE program scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Nevertheless, NOAA is planning ACE’s replacement because the spacecraft “is well past its expiration date,” Lubchenco said during an American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco. ACE was designed to gather data for five years. “While there is no evidence that ACE has any imminent failures, it is prudent to start planning for its eventual replacement,” Szabo said in a Dec. 7 email.

The administration of President Barack Obama requested funding in its 2011 and 2012 budget requests for an operational space weather satellite, the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). No money was provided in 2011. In 2012, however, Congress appropriated $30 million of the $47 million the agency requested to fund the project. That money will allow NOAA to move ahead, Lubchenco said. A DSCOVR launch is anticipated in 2014.

In the near term, NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory — Stereo, for short — also is aiding scientists in monitoring solar activity, Barbara Giles, NASA Heliophysics Division director, said. Data drawn from Stereo, a mission launched in 2006, can help scientists plan future operational space weather monitoring capabilities, Giles added Dec. 6 at the American Geophysical Union meeting. “We intend to make our data models and expertise available to NOAA and any other agency that needs it, so they can work on prototyping and demonstrating such a capability,” she added.