A million miles: Early detection system for catastrophic solar storms

Commercial spacecraft could bring a solar observatory to the gravitational midpoint between earth and sun.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

A commercial space exploration company has been tapped to conduct a study into the possibility of providing early detection for solar events that can disrupt power grids and communications on earth. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) awarded the study to Seattle-based Xplore Inc.

Solar storms can wreak havoc on earth. In 2003, a storm disrupted satellite communications, impacted air travel, and caused a significant blackout in Sweden. One study predicts that 20 to 40 million people in the U.S. could be affected during extreme solar events, with damages upward of $2.6 trillion.

That makes early detection critical, and if you're going to detect solar activity with enough advanced warning to send a heads up back to earth, it's going to have to be pretty far away. That's where the so-called Earth-Sun L1 Lagrange point comes in. The L1 is located approximately a million miles from the Earth at the neutral gravity point between the Earth and Sun. Light from the sun hits L1 about 5 seconds before it gets to earth. Crucially, the stream of particles from the sun known as the solar wind, which travels slower than the speed of light, reaches L1 a full hour before hitting Earth, providing the possibility for advanced warning in the case of a disruptive solar event.

Getting out to L1 is no easy feat. Xplore is hoping that its multi-mission ESPA-class space vehicle, known as the Xcraft, is up to the challenge, which the study will help determine. The vehicle is designed for missions beyond Earth orbit that include the Moon, Mars, Venus, near-Earth asteroids, and, of course, Lagrange points.

"We are pleased to announce NOAA has awarded Xplore a study to evaluate the feasibility of a commercial Lagrange point mission with our Xcraft spacecraft," says Xplore Founder and Chief Operating Officer, Lisa Rich. "We welcome the potential future opportunity to provide commercial services that can be leveraged to better understand the Sun and provide advanced warning to protect our critical infrastructure."

Xplore is one of a handful of space-as-a-service companies commercializing space by providing payload capacity and communications links aboard private space vehicles for fees that are typically orders of magnitude lower than it would cost space agencies. Xplore's mission is to expand robotic exploration via commercial missions at and beyond Earth, to the Moon, Mars, Venus, Lagrange points and near-Earth asteroids for national space agencies, national security agencies, sovereign space agencies and universities.

Dr. Joel B. Mozer, Chief Scientist for the U.S. Space Force says, "Xplore has exercised thought-leadership in the commercial missions it is developing beyond Earth orbit. Space weather monitoring has been a government-led activity for the last 50 years, but this is an area where innovative companies can play a key role. I am looking forward to the next era of advanced space weather capabilities coming from this partnership with Xplore."

We'll be tracking the results of the study, as well as future Xplore missions.

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