WASHINGTON — In a year when Earth’s geostationary belt has had a close brush with an asteroid and meteoroids have both exploded over Russia and dinged a crucial U.S. weather satellite, another extraterrestrial threat is rising to prominence among U.S. government officials: space weather.
Space weather refers to the effect that charged particles from the sun, ejected by our local star at rapid speed during so-called coronal mass ejections, have on man-made objects they cross paths with in space.
These solar storms, which like atmospheric storms vary in potency from mild to catastrophic, are still not well understood, despite the fact that there are about a dozen U.S. satellites in orbit whose instruments are useful for observing such phenomenon, according to the National Space Weather Program, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). About half of these satellites are operated by NASA.
When it comes to forecasting space weather, “we got a long way to go,” Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service, said June 4 during a panel discussion at 2013 Space Weather Enterprise Forum at NOAA’s Silver Spring, Md., headquarters. “We’re basically where we were in the terrestrial weather community maybe in the 1970s.”
What is clearly understood is that space weather can damage or disrupt the electronic circuits that serve as the neural pathways for critical civilian and defense satellites, distort the timing signals of widely used navigation satellites such as GPS, and damage human tissue outside of Earth’s protective magnetosphere. Given a severe enough bout of space weather, electronics on or near Earth’s surface could be affected too.
One of the most powerful solar storms on record, which struck in 1859 and has been discussed in scientific journals since, wreaked havoc with the premier communications system of the day, the telegraph.
Recognizing that the nation’s electrical infrastructure has grown exponentially since then, some U.S. policymakers are pushing to make space weather a matter of national security. This year, the Department of Homeland Security is even considering drilling a recovery from a space weather-related disaster as part of its National Exercise Program — a sort of stress test for emergency response capabilities that the department runs in two-year cycles.
NOAA, in fact, is “already planning to support one or more space weather exercises” in the upcoming cycle, acting NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan said June 4.
According to a list compiled by the White House National Science and Technology Council’s subcommittee on disaster reduction, there have been damaging solar storms in the past several decades, including one in 2006 that disrupted GPS signals used by commercial airliners, and one in 1989 that temporarily knocked out the Hydro Quebec power grid that supplies electricity to the entire Canadian province of Quebec.
“It’s a daunting problem, and we are not really there where terrestrial weather is,” said Madhulika Guhathakurta, program scientist for NASA’s main space weather program, Living With a Star. “Space weather is very much a research frontier,” said Guhathakurta, who is also the program scientist for NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory, a mission comprising twin solar orbiters that study solar phenomena including coronal mass ejections.
U.S. agencies are tackling the problem by taking stock of what it would take to transition space weather research into an operational system that could forecast solar events with more precision and advance warning than is possible now. Work on a so-called Unified National Space Weather Capability, an effort to which eight civilian agencies and the Department of Defense are contributing, officially began in 2012 with the signing of an interagency memorandum of understanding.
“It’s a total team sport, it really is … across all the different agencies, and across the full spectrum from pure research to operations,” said Col. John Egentowich, acting director of weather for the U.S. Air Force headquarters here.
Among the Air Force’s goals is improving the computer models used to process the raw data collected by satellites and ground-based space weather observation systems, Col. Egentowich said at the Space Weather Enterprise Forum.
Meanwhile, the United States has also made some inroads on international cooperation on space weather forecasting. In 2011, NOAA signed an agreement with the U.K. Met Office, Britain’s equivalent of the U.S. National Weather Service, to share the U.S.-built ENLIL computer model with British forecasters and established regular data sharing between the U.K. and NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Co.
In other signs of international concern about the phenomenon, space weather for the first time was added to the agenda of the United Nations’ 74-member Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The committee’s 56th session began June 12 in Vienna and runs through June 21. Space weather was placed under the purview of the scientific and technical subcommittee.