Age of warning satellite causes concern

March 9, 2012 at 2:19 PM
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WASHINGTON, March 9 (UPI) -- A U.S. satellite giving the only advance warning of incoming high-energy solar particles is getting old and is possibly on its last legs, researchers say.

But a replacement for NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer, or ACE, satellite is at least two years away, they said.

ACE provides the only advance notice of incoming high-energy particles from the sun which can wreak havoc on indispensable radio, GPS and satellite communications, researchers said.

Launched in 1997, ACE gives the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's space weather forecasting arm advance notice if a storm is headed toward Earth, as it did with the solar storm that left the sun Tuesday.

How much longer the satellite can keep working is a concern, scientists said.

"It would be a very bad day for us if that spacecraft was not working," William Murtagh, program coordinator for NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., told Discovery News.

"When an eruption occurs on the sun, there are still quite a few question marks as to if it's going to hit the Earth and when it's going to hit the Earth," he said.

From about 1 million miles away, ACE provides the only early warning of what's headed toward Earth and utility operators, airlines, satellite owners, GPS users and others depend on space weather alerts from NOAA.

"ACE is a single point of failure and it's old," Murtagh said. "Every time I have a space weather storm I cringe a little bit that our very own space weather satellite doesn't succumb to the storms I'm relying on it to help forecast."

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