Despite the Budget Storms, Center Stays Focused on Space Weather

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WASHINGTON — As the new director of the U.S. National Weather Service’s Space Environment Center, Tom Bogdan faces the twin challenges of advancing the state of the art for space weather forecasting while also ensuring — despite a shrinking budget — that the Boulder, Colo.-based operation keeps turning out accurate daily advisories critical to satellite operators, power companies and others needing to keep abreast of geomagnetic storms, solar flares and other such disturbances that can harm people and equipment.

It is a tough job in the best of times, and these are hardly the best of times for the Space Environment Center. The center was blind sided earlier this year by an unexplained 44-percent reduction to its $7 million annual budget. It was the second major funding blow in as many years that the center has had to weather.

The Space Environment Center managed to avoid laying off any of its roughly 50 employees thanks to a $2 million cash infusion from its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But projects the center had hoped to initiate this year to improve the range and reliability of its space weather forecasts have been put on hold.

Bogdan, a solar-terrestrial physics expert who held senior management positions at the National Center for Atmospheric Research before taking the helm of the Space Environment Center in May, hopes to get some of those forward-looking projects back on track in the year ahead.

“I really think we need to press forward on transitioning new [forecasting] models into operations,” Bogdan said.

Like the National Weather Service, the Space Environment Center gathers information from a variety of scientific and operational satellites and Earth-based sensors and runs the data through sophisticated models and analysis tools to produce daily space weather bulletins sent out to more than 3,800 subscribers.

Scientists like Bogdan know that space weather effects can be highly localized, but the forecasts the Space Environment Center issues today are global, and fairly short range, looking out only a couple days or so.

“What we are really trying to move toward is getting much better predictions [that are] more accurate, regional [and with] longer lead times,” he said.

But before any new forecasting tool can be incorporated into the Space Environment Center’s round-the-clock operations, it must be rigorously tested and proven effective. That takes personnel and money that the center currently cannot spare, Bogdan said.

With this year’s budget battle still under way, it is too soon to say how the Space Environment Center will fare in 2007. The U.S. Senate so far is going along with the White House’s $7.3 million request for the center, but the House of Representatives approved a spending measure earlier this year that would give the center just $5 million to work with in 2007 . The center’s five-year funding forecast, as outlined in the latest White House spending request, is for flat budgets through the end of the decade.

“The budget issues have been with us for quite a while,” Bogdan said. “We are working on several things to try and change that. Next year we will be holding part of our Space Weather Week in Washington.”

Space Weather Week is held each spring in Boulder and is widely attended both by scientists and users of space weather services. Bogdan said Space Weather Week will be preceded next year by a Space Weather Enterprise Forum tentatively planned for April. “That’s going to give us a chance to be visible inside the beltway [and] allow people to see the importance of space weather to a society increasingly dependent on assets located in space,” he said.

With or without a budget increase, Bogdan hopes to get some of the center’s forward-looking projects back on track as soon as next year.

“Without new resources you have to reallocate existing resources. I think we are going to be looking toward how we realign ourselves to put the emphasis on the transition [of new forecasting tools] to operations,” Bogdan said.

The Space Environment Center consists of three branches: Forecast and Analysis; Science and Technology Infusion; and the Technology Support Group.

The Forecast and Analysis branch is the heart of the Space Environment Center, responsible for making the predictions and issuing advisories. The Technology Support Group branch, in addition to keeping the center’s systems up and running, is responsible for ensuring compliance with continually evolving information technology security standards that go along with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s designation of the center as a national critical computing facility.

Both of those branches are already stretched pretty thin. So Bogdan said his search for the personnel and other resources needed for transitioning new models and tools to operational status will focus on the Science and Technology Infusion branch.

The Science and Technology Infusion branch is currently busy, supporting the post-launch checkout of the latest Geostationary Orbiting Environmental Satellite, GOES-N, which reached orbit in May, and providing input on the technical requirements for GOES-R, the first of the next-generation of U.S. geostationary weather satellites slated to launch in 2012.

GOES-N’s post-launch checkout is expected to wrap up by the end of the year, when the satellite will be put on standby until it is needed to replace the GOES satellites currently in service. Bogdan said completing checkout will help free up some badly needed resources, even though saying farewell will be disappointing to the center personnel who are enjoying trying out GOES-N’s new instruments.Bogdan’s deputy, Ron Zwickl, called the satellite “the biggest increase in capabilities we’ve probably had since the 1970s.”

The Space Environment Center also is getting ready for the launch of NASA’s sun-watching Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory, or Stereo, mission, which, at press time, was slated to launch Aug. 31 from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. The Stereo spacecraft, so named because the pair will view the sun from two different angles, are equipped with beacons that will continuously transmit a small subset of the imagery and other data they collect.

Zwickl said the Space Environment Center is standing by to evaluate whether any of Stereo’s real-time data — such as highly compressed but frequently updated chronograph images — has any practical applications to the center’s forecasting and warning operations.

“We are going to be trying to track and capture this beacon data in real time to show its utility in the operational world,” Zwickl said.

SEC at a Glance

Mission: The Space Environment Center continually monitors and forecasts Earth’s space environment, providing warning of disturbances that can affect people and equipment.

Parent Organization: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Top Official: Thomas Bogdan, director

Year Established: 1965 as part of the Environmental Science Services Administration headquartered in Boulder, Colo.

Location: Boulder, Colo.

Current Budget: About $6 million.

Personnel: About 50