Loosely Defined Space Weather Program Has its Costs, Expert Says

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WASHINGTON — Most people knowledgeable about space recognize space weather as a force to be reckoned with, but few fully understand the scope of the U.S. government efforts to guard against it.

That is because these efforts are spread across multiple agencies, their budgets often buried within programs whose main mission is something other than space weather forecasting.

According to at least one expert, the current arrangement suffers a lack of focus that could hinder the overall effort.

“I don’t think the roles and responsibilities in space weather are necessarily all that well defined,” Scott Rayder, senior adviser for development and partnerships at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, said Oct. 20 during a panel presentation at the annual Space Weather Forum here. “Maybe the community doesn’t want them defined. That’s OK. But I think if we’re going to make progress in the budgeting process, we’ve got to show who owns what planning.”

Space weather refers to charged particles blasted out of the sun during so-called coronal mass ejections. These energized particles can disrupt satellite communications, damage crucial spacecraft electronics, and even — in the event of a large enough discharge — knock out power utilities on Earth’s surface.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration runs the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, which issues solar storm alerts based on data gathered by its own satellites as well as those operated by NASA and the Defense Department.

Rayder, who was chief of staff at NOAA from 2001 to 2008, recommended a dedicated space weather research budget within NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service. He also advocated for legislation that would stand up a dedicated federal space weather bureau.

“In 1870, President [Ulysses] Grant signed into law the Organic Act that said ‘we need to have a weather bureau,’” Rayder said. “I think the time has come that we can all say, with confidence, we’re going to need something like this for space weather.

Stephen Volz, assistant administrator of the NOAA Satellite and Information Service. Credit: NOAA
Stephen Volz, assistant administrator of the NOAA Satellite and Information Service. Credit: NOAA

NOAA’s top satellite official did not agree.

“I don’t know that space weather is well enough defined in everybody’s minds to have a space weather [budget] line,” Steven Volz, assistant administrator for NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service, said in a brief interview Oct. 21 during the forum. “It’s not going to create the consensus and understanding of what’s needed.”

Still, Volz conceded the federal space weather enterprise could use some sharpening.

“Is the system working? Yes,” Volz said. “Is it the system I want to take for the next 25 years? No.”

NOAA’s latest space weather satellite is the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), an Earth-observing satellite that was shelved but later repurposed as a space weather mission and launched to the Earth-sun Lagrange point 1 in February. The satellite’s operational checkout is slated to be completed Oct. 27, at which time NASA, which built and launched the spacecraft, will turn the keys over to NOAA.

To continue space weather observations after DSCOVR, NOAA is studying a Space Weather Follow-on, which at the moment is only a $2.5 million blip in the 2016 budget request the White House proposed for the agency in February.

During the forum, NOAA revealed more of its thinking about the Space Weather Follow-on. The program would feature multiple satellites and provide space weather alerts one to four days in advance using a new compact coronagraph, said John Pereira, deputy director of the Office of Projects, Planning and Analysis at NOAA’s Satellite Information Service.

The first spacecraft would be “an operational space weather satellite mission to the Lagrange point 1,” Pereira said. He did not say when the satellite might launch, but he did say NASA and the Naval Research Laboratory would collaborate on the satellite, which would feature five instruments including the compact coronagraph.

NASA could provide “advanced sensors and propulsion technologies” for the mission, while the Naval Research Laboratory would provide the coronagraph, Pereira said.

In appropriations bills drafted over the summer, the House approved the White House’s the request, but the Senate did not. The government is now funded under a stopgap bill that maintains 2015 spending levels through Dec. 11, so the Space Weather Follow-on is not funded for the moment.