NOAA awards Xplore $670,000 to study the options for space weather observatory

Alan Boyle
Artwork shows Xplore’s Xcraft probe observing the sun in different spectral bands. (Xplore Illustration)

Seattle-based Xplore has won a $670,111 award from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to look into the feasibility of sending a solar observatory to a gravitational balance point that’s a million miles from Earth.

From that spot, known as the Earth-Sun L1 Lagrange Point, Xplore’s multi-mission Xcraft probe would monitor the sun and provide early detection of solar storms that could disrupt power grids and telecommunications on Earth.

Based on the outcome of Xplore’s study, which is due for completion in December, NOAA would decide whether or not to provide further support for the concept that the company comes up with.

“Xplore has exercised thought leadership in the commercial missions it is developing beyond Earth orbit,” Joel Mozer, chief scientist for the U.S. Space Force, said in a news release. “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.”

Lisa Rich, Xplore’s chief operating officer and co-founder, said “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’s unique ‘Space as a Service’ business model provides a cost-effective solution enabling organizations like NOAA to purchase just the data they need via service agreements without having to buy the whole system,” Rich said.

The L1 point is a region of space where the gravitational pulls of our planet and the sun balance each other out, allowing spacecraft to stay in a stable position. It’s a popular hangout for sun-watching probes such as the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO; and the Advanced Composition Explorer, or ACE.

Such spacecraft provide detailed information about solar activity, including the storms of electrically charged particles that can be thrown off in our direction. The most extreme solar storms can be highly disruptive. A classic example took place in 1989, when a blast from the sun knocked out power grids in Quebec, triggering outages in the northeast U.S. as well.

“As we become more reliant on technology like our cell phones, GPS and other satellite services, we find we are more susceptible to space weather,” said Tamitha Skov, a space weather forecaster and research scientist at The Aerospace Corp.

Sun-watching spacecraft can provide advance notice of an incoming storm, providing enough time to take precautionary measures and mitigate the severity of the storm’s effects, she said.

Some of those spacecraft are already well beyond their planned operating lifetimes. SOHO was launched for a two-year primary mission but has lasted for 25 years. ACE’s planned lifetime was five years, but it’s been in operation for 23 years.

NOAA is aiming to beef up its capabilities to gauge solar weather, which is expected to reach the next peak in the sun’s roughly 11-year activity cycle sometime in the 2023-2026 time frame.

In addition to the NOAA award, Xplore has received a grant from the Air Force to study navigational tools for missions in cislunar space, and it’s part of a team led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and The Aerospace Corp. to design a telescope array that could use the sun’s gravitational field as a lens to focus on alien planets.

Founded in 2017, Xplore aims to launch its first Xcraft spacecraft beyond Earth orbit as early as next year, as a secondary payload on a rocket to be named later.

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