Air Force Advancing Space Weather Forecasts – Improved Models To Help Military Avoid Permanent On-Orbit Damage to Satellites

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The U.S. Air Force is working to improve its space weather forecasting models to help the service better protect the space capabilities that have become crucial to U.S. troops, according to service officials.

The improved forecasting models will be designed to help the military avoid permanent damage to its satellites due to space weather events, and also to predict when and where those capabilities might be unusable, the officials said during an Oct. 19 telephone interview.

The models can also help officials better understand whether a disruption in a satellite’s operations are caused by space weather, an internal failure in the spacecraft or a deliberate attack, the officials said.

“With the growing reliance on space, we also see increasing needs for space weather support for military and civilian capabilities,” said Lt. Col. Trey Cade, applied technology division chief at the Air Force Weather Agency, at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. “We make sure to stay on the cutting edge of the latest science.” The applied technology division works in concert with other military, civil and academic organizations.

The Air Force Weather Agency does not have a specific budget account for its space weather work, but its Space Weather Operations Center has increased its number of forecasts, advisories and warnings over the past three years by 10 percent, said Bryan Davis, chief forecaster in the agency’s space weather branch. Recent upgrades to the models used by space weather officials have improved the accuracy and range for more than 50 percent of their forecasts, he said.

Officials at the Air Force Weather Agency recently began using a forecasting model that gives users of the system three hours’ notice when radiation levels in the magnetosphere reach the point where particle buildup on satellites is a possibility, Cade said.

These particles can interfere with a satellite’s transmissions and damage critical components including sensors, Cade said.

Troops in satellite ground control facilities can use these three-hour forecasts to take action to protect a satellite from the effects of these solar particles including: reducing its power levels or turning a satellite off altogether, Davis said.

The agency hopes that research conducted at places like the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Office of Naval Research, the National Weather Service and academia will lead to the development of forecasting models that can provide advanced capabilities, including three-day forecasts of weather in the magnetosphere, Davis said.

Three days notice would enable commanders to make operational plans with the knowledge that they may not be able to rely on certain satellites during specific periods, Davis said.

Other advanced modeling capabilities the agency hopes to employ in this area in the future include detecting particles in the magnetosphere that could penetrate a satellite, Cade said. This could damage internal components and possibly cause a satellite’s computers to assign false commands to the spacecraft, he said.

Cade and Davis said that it is difficult to predict how long it may take to conduct the research needed for those improvements, and declined to speculate on a timetable.

One capability that they do expect to have by the end of this year is a three-day forecast of solar wind. Large clouds of gas from the sun can blow into the magnetosphere, disrupting links between satellites and the ground, Cade said. This can impair the military’s ability to command and control its satellites, receive transmissions of data or use communications spacecraft, he said.

The clouds of gas also cause the borealis, and reflections off the aurora borealis, the so-called Northern and Southern Lights that can interfere with or cause false positives for ground-based missile defense radar sensors, Cade said.

The weather agency recently began using a forecasting capability called D-Region Absorption that creates a graphical display of the current effects of solar flares on high frequency communications and GPS navigation signals, Cade said. Solar flares can cause a degradation or blackout in performance, and the graphics help officials pinpoint where the disruptions are occurring, he said.

At this point the agency is only capable of quantifying the impact of the solar flares, but officials are hopeful that they will have the ability to perform 24-hour forecasts by early next year, he said.