CU-Boulder's sun-gazing satellite, designed to last 5 years, turns 10

When a sun-gazing NASA satellite designed and built by the University of Colorado Boulder launched into space on Jan. 25, 2003, solar storms were raging.

A decade later, the four instruments onboard the Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment, or SORCE, have given scientists an unprecedented look at some of the most intense solar eruptions ever witnessed — including the notorious Halloween storms in October and November 2003 — as well as the anomalously quiet solar minimum that hushed the sun’s surface beginning in 2008 and, now, a new solar maximum that appears to be the least active in a century.

“We were there to see it transform from a fairly normal solar cycle to a very low-activity solar cycle,” said Tom Woods, associate director of CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, known as LASP, and principal investigator for SORCE. “Of course we couldn’t predict or know that, but it’s very exciting.”

The data generated by SORCE’s instruments, which were originally designed to operate for just five years, are downloaded twice a day with the help of CU-Boulder undergraduates working at LASP mission control. Scientists are now using that data to better understand how energy from the sun affects Earth’s climate. While human-produced greenhouse gases have been the dominant driver of climate change over the last several decades, the activity of the sun can either enhance or offset the resulting global warming.

“About 10 to 15 percent of the climate warming since 1970 is due to the sun,” Woods said. “That’s going to change now. Now that solar activity is low, the global warming trend could slow down some, but not nearly enough to offset the anthropogenic effects on global warming.”

The SORCE mission is also a critical contributor to the long-term record of total solar irradiance — the magnitude of the sun’s energy when it reaches the top of the Earth’s atmosphere — which stretches back to 1978, when the Nimbus-7 satellite was launched. The Total Irradiance Monitor, or TIM, instrument onboard SORCE is taking the most accurate and most precise measurements of total solar irradiance ever collected.

“The total solar irradiance provides nearly all the energy powering the Earth’s climate system, exceeding all other energy sources combined by 2,500 times,” said Greg Kopp, LASP senior research scientist and co-investigator responsible for the TIM instrument. “Any change in total irradiance can thus have large effects on our climate.”

The instruments onboard SORCE have doubled their original life expectancy, but they won’t last forever. The limiting factor will likely be the satellite’s battery. Still, Woods and his colleagues expect that SORCE will continue to function through this year, allowing the satellite to hit another important milestone for celebration: the 11-year mark, the average length of a complete solar cycle.

“Eleven years is special to us,” Woods said. “Instead of having a big science conference this year, we’re planning it for next January.”

For more information on SORCE's 10th birthday, read the full press release here.