NOAA’s aging fleet of sun-observation satellites

In testimony during a Senate hearing on February 12, the head of NOAA’s space weather division admitted that the agency’s ability to monitor the Sun is threatened by its aging fleet of solar satellites, combined with the agency’s slow progress on a large single replacement satellite, presently scheduled for launch in 2024.

NOAA currently uses the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) and NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft to collect solar wind data, and uses the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft to observe the solar corona, using those data to forecast solar storms that can affect satellites and terrestrial infrastructure such as power grids.

However, SOHO, launched in December 1995, is well past its design life. In addition, DSCOVR has been offline since June 2019 because of technical problems, forcing NOAA to depend solely on ACE, which launched in 1997. [emphasis mine]

NOAA has been trying, and failing, to build a replacement for ACE for more than a decade. Worse, the agency’s inability to deal with these issues was further revealed by this quote:

Congress has pushed to speed up work on that [replacement] mission, despite NOAA’s assurances about the availability of data from other spacecraft. NOAA sought about $25 million for the mission in its fiscal year 2020 budget request, but Congress appropriated $64 million. NOAA has yet to release its fiscal year 2021 budget request, more than a week after the White House published the overall federal government budget proposal.

Something has been wrong in the management at NOAA now for at least a decade. They can’t seem to get new satellites built, and when they try they can’t seem to do it on schedule and for a reasonable cost. Their weather satellite program has been rife with problems, including cost overruns, schedule delays, and failing satellites.

But why should we be surprised? This kind of mismanagement at the federal government has been par for the course for the past half century.

DSCOVR in safe mode

The solar wind monitoring satellite DSCOVR has gone into safe mode.

It is at present unclear what the problem is, or whether they can recover the spacecraft.

DSCOVR’s history is packed with political shenanigans. It was first proposed by Gore as Triana, with its only purpose to take global pictures of the Earth so Gore and the left could use these images for environmental propaganda. Bush canceled it, partly because it really had no legitimate scientific purpose and partly to prevent the left this propaganda tool. It was resurrected during the Obama administration but with a more useful purpose, providing early solar wind data so that Earth-based power grids could get prepared should a major solar storm be incoming. NASA’s other solar wind monitors ACE and SOHO, were already decades beyond their planned lifespan, and the space agency, the solar weather community, and especially the world’s electrical power industry, was desperate to get a new satellite in space.

Ironically, with DSCOVR’s shutdown we are still dependent on ACE and SOHO. Nor is there any replacement satellite anywhere close to launch.