New Satellite Provides Weather Forecasts For The Final Frontier : The Two-Way The GOES-R satellite launched on Nov. 19. It'll enter orbit and sit 22,000 miles above the Americas, monitoring weather on the planet — and in space.

New Satellite Provides Weather Forecasts For The Final Frontier

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Tomorrow, a new satellite heads into orbit around Earth. It's intended to sit 22,000 miles above North America, monitoring the weather on the planet and in space. NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell reports on how researchers are keeping an eye on space weather.

RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: Every morning in a government office building in Boulder, Colo., about a dozen people type a code into a door...


BICHELL: ...And line up against a wall on the other side. There are a couple of guys in military uniform and some scientists in Hawaiian shirts.

RODNEY VIERECK: All right, I think we're all here.

BICHELL: They work at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And they're here for a daily weather forecast, a space weather forecast.

JEFF STANKIEWICZ: Good morning, everyone. My name is Jeff Stankiewicz. Welcome to your Friday, Oct. 21, space weather briefing.

BICHELL: Jeff Stankiewicz is one of 11 forecasters who work here around the clock. Now, it may come as a surprise that there's weather in space, but there is. And it's happening pretty much all the time. It's caused by particles, which fly through space and smash into Earth's atmosphere, particles that come from the sun. Stankiewicz shows me some videos of the sun, twitching with activity. A dark red puff rises off the surface and disappears into space. It all looks wispy on the screen, but solar burps like this one can be massive.

VIERECK: A billion tons of material traveling a million miles an hour.

BICHELL: Rodney Viereck is a physicist with the Space Weather Prediction Center. All these sun spewings are the reason why, since the 1970s, a series of satellites have been monitoring weather on Earth and in space. A new one, called GOES-R, is set to launch from Florida this weekend. This one's decked out with better imaging technology than ever because forecasters want to know if nasty space weather is headed our way.

VIERECK: It affects GPS. It affects communication. It affects astronauts and satellites.

BICHELL: When space weather reaches Earth, it can change the shape of the atmosphere and add a lot of space gunk to it. That can skew navigation systems, bend high-frequency radio signals and mess with the electronics onboard satellites. But the real threat for most of us is that space weather can fry the electrical grid. In the last few decades, it's knocked the power out in Sweden, South Africa and Canada.

VIERECK: That's the fear - is the possibility - the remote possibility - but the possibility that there could be an extreme event that would actually put us into a position where we just don't have reliable power for months.

BICHELL: A hundred fifty years ago, a massive solar storm lit up the sky. There weren't electric grids to fry back then, but it did put so much electricity in the air that it started fires in telegraph offices.

VIERECK: So it was very, very much a huge event. We don't get many of those. That's one of the big questions - how big can it be?

BICHELL: For now, there are no giant space storms in sight. But if one of those big events was about to occur, GOES-R and other satellites like it should provide some warning. In the meantime, the satellites will also keep a close eye on Earth weather, mapping lightning strikes and taking rapid-fire images of severe storms.

Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR News.

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