September was a trial by fire for Thomas Berger. The veteran solar physicist had been on the job as director of the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, Colorado, just six weeks when Earth found itself in the cross-hairs of a powerful solar storm with the potential to disrupt satellite broadcasts, play havoc with GPS signals and even overload electric grids, causing blackouts. The coronal mass ejection of energetic particles the sun sent hurtling toward Earth Sept. 10 was indeed extremely strong, even if the storm’s impact appears to have been limited to producing spectacular auroras.

Still, for SWPC — part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service — the solar storm was an “all hands on deck” event, Berger said, with forecasters immediately getting to work modeling the outburst and its potential to slam into Earth. 

As one of nine National Centers for Environmental Prediction, SWPC provides real-time monitoring and forecasting of solar and geophysical events, which impact satellites, power grids, communications, navigation and many other technological systems. SWPC also explores and evaluates new models and products and transitions them into operations.

Berger came to his new post from the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico, where he served as the project scientist for the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope. When completed, it will become the world’s premier ground-based solar observatory. Prior to that position, Berger served as a solar physicist at the Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Lab within the Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto, California. 

Berger spoke recently with SpaceNews correspondent Leonard David.

As SWPC’s new director, is there any shift of emphasis you would like to see within the organization?

My first job is to just keep doing the job that’s being done, which is being the nation’s premier forecasting and alert source for space weather. That’s our core mission, so clearly that’s something I don’t want to change. We can obviously improve our core mission and that involves growing both our modeling and our observations that are the inputs to our forecasters. So I would like to see some growth in both of those areas.

How well did the SWPC do with the September solar event?

The forecasting, I have to say, was excellent. That was one of the better forecasting events in the history of space weather. The tricky part about this event was that it was two CMEs [coronal mass ejections] within a day from a disc center active region on the sun that was pretty big, and the second CME was a big one — an X-class flare with a large pulse. So we knew we had a pretty interesting event on our hands — a double whammy. Had those two CMEs piled up at Earth, and had the magnetic field been in the right direction among other variables, we could have been in for a very, very big storm. The models were so good we could tell within an hour-and-a-half when those were going to hit. And we could tell that they weren’t going to pile up. That was a very key thing. But an hour-and-a-half arrival time accuracy is phenomenal.

What’s the status of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) and how does it fit into SWPC?

Its launch date is Jan. 13 and it is very important for a variety of reasons — primarily because it represents the first NOAA operational satellite in deep space. It will be our real-time solar wind monitor at the L1 Lagrangian point. Currently we rely on those data taken by the ACE [Advanced Composition Explorer] spacecraft, a NASA research satellite launched in 1997. ACE is still functioning quite well, approaching 20 years old. The major significance of DSCOVR is that it is a NOAA operational asset at L1.

Why is that important?

A lot of people in the research community don’t necessarily appreciate the difficulty of establishing an operational capability in space as opposed to a research capability. The difference there is being operational 365 days a year — 24/7. DSCOVR is a very key step in the direction of having an operational fleet for space weather observations. It also represents, I think, a good development for the future to look at NOAA as an operator of operational satellites that are available, extremely robust, and do the kinds of observations that we know we need for forecasting.

Is there a DSCOVR-2?

We are discussing what’s called a DSCOVR follow-on mission. What that exactly will be is still under study. We’re working with several groups to define what would be a good operational mission as a follow-on to DSCOVR at L1. And that would be, nominally, a 2020 launch right now, whatever it is.

What kind of in-space sensor is missing from the mix of space weather tools?

We are discussing right now with another group a design for what’s called a compact coronagraph. This is work being done with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory  and is a derivative of a NASA research coronagraph that was flown on the STEREO [Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory] mission and shown to be very valuable for forecasting. You can’t carry a large telescope like the research satellites could. So the Naval Research Lab is developing a very clever compact coronagraph design, which is a candidate for flying on a DSCOVR follow-on mission.

Do you foresee any role for cubesats?

The National Science Foundation is looking at this in great detail. Perhaps you could have a swarm of, say, 200 satellites consistently and constantly measuring the magnetosphere. You could get some very good data on exactly what is happening to Earth’s magnetic field as its interacting with the solar wind an or a CME. We’re looking to the foundation for the research leadership and it may be that the follow-on to a DSCOVR follow-on is a mission including swarms of smaller satellites for magnetic field and plasma measurements in the magnetosphere.

What do you see in terms of international cooperation regarding the monitoring of space weather?

I think that international collaboration is really important if you talk about having a permanent fleet of sensors in space for space weather monitoring. That’s likely beyond the capability of just one nation. So having a coordinated effort to launch common sensors with common data formats, things like this, is going to be a very interesting growth area.

Why are we so susceptible to solar events?

We are more vulnerable to space weather than we have been in the past. That’s primarily because we rely more and more on satellite-based location and timing technologies such as GPS. When the ionosphere is disturbed due to geomagnetic storms, GPS is going to have trouble. And as we become more and more reliant on GPS we know that space weather has to be better and better in terms of predictions and nowcasting. We’re heading toward being able to do a regional forecasting capability and nowcasting capability for the ionosphere.

What’s the difference between forecasting and nowcasting?

Forecasting is the prediction of what’s going to happen and you can put various time frames to that, be it 24 hours, three days, a week. So we do that. That’s our primary mission. Also important to keep in mind is that once a storm hits — both in terrestrial weather and space weather — one of the key functions of any National Weather Service office is to tell people what’s happening right now. That’s essentially what in this business we refer to as nowcasting. When a large CME hits, it is often, we believe, a turbulent interaction, which means the magnetic field can change direction rather rapidly. There’s really no way currently to forecast those rapid changes. So you need to be on top of the event as it is happening, providing information constantly throughout the event.

I see that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a growing interest in space weather. Why so?

FEMA and other government agencies involved in disaster response are definitely monitoring our watches, warnings and alerts. They have become educated to the fact that space weather has the potential to create a large-scale event on a national scale, if we were to get a severe enough storm. So this is something that has developed over the last, say, five years, and it’s continuing to develop. So SWPC is a key partner to these agencies and talking about what these storms are capable of, what sorts of technological consequences we have to be aware of. The federal government is in the process of trying to understand the magnitude of the space weather risk and trying to develop and implement strategies for response.

Also, we’re coordinating closely with Air Force space weather experts. It is increasingly clear that we need backup to be on at all times. So being operational means not only are you 365 days, 24/7, but you have backup. So if something goes wrong here, it’s key to know that the Air Force space weather command is our backup and vice versa.

Do you do a postmortem on how well users of your data react?

It’s not something we do regularly yet. But I think as a new director, it’s a direction that I want to go in — having a regular interaction with our users to examine how they did in specific events. I would also like to look at doing war gaming, where we simulate a very, very large event and see what the response is of our forecasting system, what the response is of the various agencies out there to something like that, and our customers as well.

Why are you overhauling your website? 

We have a rapidly growing subscriber base. We are undergoing a website revamp because we need to have not only reliable, timely and accurate forecasts, but we need to have accessible forecasts and nowcasting products. That accessibility part is key and that’s going to be one of my focuses as director, where the data are going to be understandable, accessible, relevant, etc. It’s a very important upgrade. It should make the acquisition and use of space weather data much easier than any current site in existence. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to the coronagraph as a chronograph.

Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...