Air Force looks to companies, international partners in quest to improve space weather forecasting


AUSTIN, Texas – The U.S. Air Force is seeking continuous improvement of its ability to understand and forecast space weather that impacts Defense Department satellites, said Ralph Stoffler, Air Force director of weather.

“This is an important business area which will continue to expand over the next several years,” Stoffler said Jan. 9 at the American Meteorological Society meeting here. “We are going to throw more resources at this and get this capability up to where it needs to be.”

Much of that work involves partnerships. In 2017, the Air Force established a pilot program to evaluate whether commercial providers could provide valuable space weather data.

“We fully expect to go down the pathway of buying commercial data, both space-based and terrestrial, to improve our forecasts,” Stoffler said. “That’s definitely in the cards and that’s what we are going to need.”

The Air Force also is expanding international partnerships. “Working together is key,” Stoffer said. “We are working hot and heavy with NATO partners in particular and with a number of folks in Asia.”

An inherent challenge with all aspects of the space weather mission is cybersecurity. The Air Force relies on a combination of old and new observing systems scattered around the world.

“One of the reasons we are not as far along as we should be in this area is because cybersecurity is a big deal,” Stoffler said.
Cloud computing may help. Commercial data providers often move their data into clouds with built-in cybersecurity. The Air Force could then pull data from those clouds into its processing centers.

“That will be the future,” Stoffler said. “We look to using the cloud to make that happen.”

The Air Force also plans to install an Energetic Charged Particle (ECP) sensor on its spacecraft. A prototype of the new ECP sensor is undergoing testing and the Air Force plans anticipates full operational capability in 2023, Stoffler said.

The space weather mission is becoming increasingly important as the U.S. military expands its reliance on satellites for communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. All of those missions “rely on space capability and if the space stuff doesn’t work, you are in serious straits,” Stoffler said.