The NOAA Space Environment Center is the nation’s first defense against the affects of solar weather and the official source of space weather alerts and warnings. “It can be difficult for people to believe that space weather can affect life on earth, but in fact it can have a tremendous impact on communication and navigation systems, satellites, electric power grids, and astronauts working and living in space,” said Larry Combs, space weather forecaster at the NOAA Space Environment Center in Boulder, Colo.

Space weather describes the conditions in space that affect Earth and its technological systems. Space weather is a consequence of the behavior of the sun and the nature of the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere. The solar disturbances categorized in space weather storms are: Radio Blackouts, Solar Radiation Storms and Geomagnetic Storms. These storms can interfere with the normal operation of radio communications used by airlines and emergency response teams, military detection or early-warning systems, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), satellite components and spacecraft operations. Solar storms also have the potential to impact large power transformers and even cause a large-scale blackout in North America. Solar storms also create a biological threat to both astronauts and people flying in aircraft at high altitudes and latitudes.

“People are becoming more dependent on technology; the potential far-reaching and dramatic impacts of space weather are making our mission more vital each day,” said Bill Murtagh, NOAA space weather forecaster. “Accurate space weather measurements and predictions are vital in mitigating the potential impact of these storms.”

Like the prediction of weather events on Earth, forecasting space weather begins with a thorough analysis of the environment. However, space weather forecasters begin their analysis at the sun and end it with an analysis of the magnetic and radiation environment right here on Earth. NOAA Space Environment Center forecasters use observations from both ground- and space-based sensors to assess the current state of the space environment. Forecasters look for recurrent patterns of solar activity and use models similar to those used in meteorology to predict solar storms. After a thorough analysis, forecasters are able to predict space weather on time scales of hours to weeks.

In addition to forecasting, alert messages for space weather events are issued to thousands of customers when specific levels of activity occur. When these solar storm levels are predicted or exceeded, agencies around the world take immediate action to mitigate the threat. Electric power grid operators initiate protective measures to prevent transformer damage and blackout conditions; major airlines reroute flights away from high latitudes to avoid the increased radiation and communication problems; drilling and surveying agencies relying on GPS, cease operations; and space agencies postpone satellite launches and take action to protect sensitive instruments on satellites in orbit.

The NOAA Space Environment Center also provides space weather services to many government agencies, including the departments of Energy, Transportation, Defense, Homeland Security, in addition to NASA and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. NOAA space weather forecasters coordinate with NASA radiation experts daily. During large radiation storms, NASA relocates astronauts to a safer location on the International Space Station. NASA also is very concerned about the potentially debilitating effects of solar radiation on spacecraft avionics and will power-down the billion dollar robotic arm and workstation during large radiation storms. The NOAA Space Environment Center provides support for deep-space missions, including, most recently, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Stardust mission.

To adhere to FAA regulations, airlines must be cognizant of space weather conditions, because certain forms of communications are rendered useless during solar storms. FAA rules require reliable and rapid communications at all times between en-route aircraft and dispatch offices and air traffic control units. The NOAA Space Environment Center also contributes vital information for the FAA’s Solar Radiation Alerts. If a significant solar radiation storm is detected on the NOAA GOES satellites, the FAA Civil Aerospace Medical Institute issues a Solar Radiation Alert. This information enables aviation companies to decide whether or not reducing aircraft flight altitudes or re-routing an aircraft is appropriate.

In addition to being the lead national and the international warning center for disturbances in the space environment, the NOAA Space Environment Center conducts and leads important research and development programs. These efforts contribute significantly to the understanding of the space environment and help improve services. NOAA Space Environment Center staff also provides critical inputs for government and industry policy makers and planners. The Forecast Center of the NOAA Space Environment Center is jointly operated by NOAA and the U.S. Air Force.

NOAA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of the nation’s coastal and marine resources.

Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners and nearly 60 countries to develop a global monitoring network that is as integrated as the planet it observes.