AUSTIN (KXAN) — When you think about weather, you probably think about rain, heat and storms. However, weather can happen in space too, and NOAA is making advances to forecast it.

NOAA launched GOES-18, also known as GOES West, earlier this year. It is a satellite positioned to continuously image the United States, Mexico, Central America and the Pacific Ocean. GOES West is a part of a larger mission to monitor and record atmospheric weather, oceanic observations, environmental hazards and space weather.

GOES-18 began to record observations on the sun last month on June 24. NOAA released the first of these images early last week. Solar images collected from the satellite will help scientists better understand and forecast space weather.

The first images from GOES-18. Credit: NOAA
The first images from GOES-18. Credit: NOAA

What is space weather?

The sun releases light, charged particles and magnetic fields, all of which can have impacts on Earth if the conditions align. Solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CME) are two types of large “eruptions” on the sun that can launch particles and energy toward Earth. The incoming energy can influence Earth’s magnetic field by causing geomagnetic storms in the atmosphere. Solar activity and the effect it has near and on Earth is referred to as space weather.

Solar activity is dictated by the sun’s 11-year cycle where the number of sun spots and incoming solar energy increase and decrease. During the peak of the cycle, more solar flares and CME’s occur, resulting in more active space weather. Currently, solar activity is on the rise.

How does space weather impact us?

Space weather influences us in many different ways. According to NOAA, geomagnetic storms can interfere with communication and navigation systems as well as power utilities. They’re also capable of causing damage to the International Space Station and orbiting satellites.

Though space weather has some negative impacts, it can also create immense beauty. Charged particles from the sun interfere with atmospheric particles, releasing energy in the form of light. This usually happens in the polar regions, leading to the famous northern and southern lights. This phenomenon occurs more frequently and is at its brightest during the solar maximum.

Northern Lights Credit: NOAA
Northern Lights Credit: NOAA

Solar activity is currently on the rise, so it might be worth it to look into a trip to the North Pole to see the northern lights in the next few years. In the meantime, keep an eye out for more beautiful images from GOES West.