Budget issues could delay space weather mission

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SEATTLE — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could be forced to delay plans for a space weather satellite if Congress decides to extend a stopgap spending bill currently funding the agency for the full year.

NOAA, like other federal agencies, is operating under a continuing resolution (CR) that funds it at fiscal year 2016 levels through April 28. Some observers believe that Congress may decide to extend the CR for the rest of the fiscal year, through Sept. 30, to focus instead on fiscal year 2018 appropriations bills.

That could pose a problem for the Space Weather Follow On program, a NOAA effort to develop two next-generation satellites to monitor space weather and provide warnings of geomagnetic storms. NOAA requested $2.5 million for the program to continue initial studies, but under the CR can only spend at the 2016 level of $1.2 million.

In a presentation at the 97th Annual Meeting of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) here, Douglas Biesecker of the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center said that a full-year CR could delay the current schedule for the follow-on program, which calls for the launch of the first satellite in 2022. “The clear answer is that would delay things,” he said, but didn’t specify to what degree.

NOAA’s fiscal year 2017 budget proposal projected funding for the Space Weather Follow On to increase sharply after 2017, as the mission went into development. It expected needing $53.7 million in 2018 and $186.1 million in 2019, the peak year of the program. The program has an estimated total life cycle cost of $757.7 million.

NOAA wants to launch the follow-on spacecraft in 2022 in order to ensure continuity of space weather data. NOAA’s primary spacecraft for providing data for space weather warnings is the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) spacecraft, which NOAA formally declared operational in that role in July 2016. DSCOVR, Biesecker said, has enough fuel to maintain its position at the Earth-sun L-1 Lagrange point, 1.5 million kilometers from the Earth in the direction of the sun, for seven years.

DSCOVR, launched in February 2015, went through an extended commissioning phase because of an issue with one of its space weather instruments. While the spacecraft’s magnetometer has worked well, Biesecker said there were problems with the spacecraft’s Faraday cup, an instrument that measures solar wind speed, density and temperature. The instrument is providing data every 20 seconds, versus every 1 second as originally planned.

“That’s what caused the big delay to July of 2016, getting the Faraday cup into useful operating condition,” he said.

The Space Weather Follow On program, which includes a second satellite for launch in 2027, would replace both DSCOVR and the ESA-NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft. SOHO, launched in 1995, has a coronagraph instrument to collect data on coronal mass ejections on the sun that can trigger space weather events.

SOHO has long exceeded its lifetime, but Biesecker said the mission will eventually come to an end. “SOHO is definitely nearing the end of its lifetime,” he said. The power its solar panels provide is gradually declining, with current trend projecting the power levels falling below the minimum needed to run the spacecraft and instruments around the time of the first Space Weather Follow On launch.

NOAA is currently studying a “gapfiller” coronagraph mission, Biesecker said, to provide a backup should SOHO fail prior to the launch of the first Space Weather Follow On satellite. NOAA issued a request for information in September seeking ideas of how to launch such an instrument by around 2019.

“That something that we’re thinking about,” he said, adding there was no funding yet for such a mission. “We have to be concerned about the availability of the coronagraph instrument.”