A new satellite tasked with monitoring the solar wind in Earth’s neighborhood is scheduled for launch on Tuesday evening from Cape Canaveral, Florida, weather permitting.

The launch of NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) mission marks a key point in ensuring continuous warnings of potentially-damaging solar eruptions. After a few months of course adjustments, the satellite will reach its destination, orbiting the Sun a million miles away from Earth. The satellite’s fixed position relative to Earth will enable it to monitor the pure solar wind that eventually impacts our planet.

The DSCOVR mission will take over for the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite that NASA launched into orbit in 1997. ACE has performed a yeoman’s job of supplying real-time solar wind data to operational forecast centers around the world. The spacecraft has far outlived its design life, and will now stand aside for DSCOVR to assume the role.

DSCOVR will measure the highly variable solar wind speed that, at its fastest, can lead to both bright auroras (the good part) as well as impaired electrical power grids (the bad part). It will also sample other key solar parameters that contribute to the severity of impacts near Earth.

“[S]pace weather has demonstrated the potential to disrupt virtually every major public infrastructure system, including transportation systems, power grids, telecommunications and GPS,” says NOAA. “Our national security and economic well-being, which depend on advanced technologies, are at significant risk without accurate advanced warnings of impending geomagnetic storms.”

Our virtual eyes in space, solar monitoring satellites bestow enormous benefit to society’s electrical grid and radio communications, as well as to the space weather forecasters that work to ensure their security.

Imagine being a goalie in an NHL game when, say, the Capital’s Alexander Ovechkin lets go of a one-timer from the blue line, screened by others in front of the net. Prior to ACE – and now DSCOVR – that was the situation space weather forecasters were in. They were able to see eruptions on the surface of the Sun, but had no sense whatsoever of the eruption’s speed.

The fastest eruptions are typically the most threatening, but forecasters had no guidance as to whether they were zipping along at a more typical million miles-per-hour speed, or a screaming 4+ million miles-per-hour.

“DSCOVR will typically be able to provide 15 to 60 minute warning time before the surge of particles and magnetic field, known as a coronal mass ejection (or CME), associated with a geomagnetic storm reaches Earth,” NOAA says.

DSCOVR will monitor our solar neighborhood, and will be able to tell if the conditions are ripe for a storm, and start the chain of events to ensure the alerts get out and precautions are taken.

The author, Joe Kunches, is Director of Space Weather Services at Atmospheric and Space Technology Research Associates (ASTRA), based in Boulder, Colo. Kunches was a former lead forecaster and operations chief at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.