WASHINGTON — The White House wants U.S. agencies involved in space weather to consider commercial sources of observation data as they draft a unified, long-term plan for forecasting the kind of solar storms that can wreak havoc on all manner of electrical systems in space and on Earth.
The directive to consider commercial data sources was part of the Space Weather Action Plan the White House unveiled Oct. 30. The plan is a road map for executing the broader National Space Weather Strategy, which was released the same day during a media briefing with John Holdren, director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.
At a high level, the strategy directs the various government agencies that are experts in space weather — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, the U.S. Air Force, the National Science Foundation, and the Interior Department — to lay out long-term strategies for collecting space weather data and educating other government agencies that could one day be forced to deal with the potentially destructive aftermath of a colossal solar storm.
A strong enough space weather event, in which charged particles from the sun reach Earth’s surface, could damage power grids.
NOAA is effectively the lead agency on space weather. The Commerce Department agency runs the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado, which uses data from various civilian and military satellites to produce daily space weather forecasts used by satellite and aircraft operators, among others. The Space Weather Action Plan directs NOAA to take the lead — in consultation with the Pentagon, NASA and other agencies — in developing a long term plan for “deployment of new operational space-weather-observing assets.”
“The plan will prioritize and define the required fidelity, cadence, and latency of ground-based and space-based measurements,” the White House wrote. The plan is due by October 2018, by which point U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration began work on the Space Weather Action Plan last year, will have left office.
One of the early opportunities for commercial companies to find a foothold in this long-term plan is to partner with NOAA on a replacement satellite for the nearly 20 year-old Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) stationed at the Earth-Sun Lagrange point 1, or L1 — a gravitationally stable spot between the Earth and the sun that is well-suited for space weather observatories.
By the end of 2017, NOAA, in consultation with the Air Force and NASA, must deliver a report to the White House about replacing the U.S.-European SOHO spacecraft with a next-generation L1 satellite, according to the Space Weather Action Plan.
The primary instrument on this new satellite would be a coronagraph — a telescope specially designed to observe the sun’s outer ring, where the electrically charged particles commonly called space weather originate. The spacecraft would also carry other space-weather instruments, such as sensors capable of directly sampling the particles thrown off the corona in so-called solar winds.
As part of this SOHO-replacement study, the administration specifically directed NOAA to consider “commercial solutions and international partnerships.”
What NOAA is considering now, at least where a new coronagraph is concerned, is a collaboration with the Naval Research Laboratory, according to an agency official who spoke at a space weather meeting held here a week before the White House released its new space weather strategy.
The Navy could provide a miniature coronagraph for a space-weather satellite that would be the first of several in a proposed NOAA program known in budget documents as Polar Follow-On, John Pereira, deputy director of the Office of Projects, Planning and Analysis at NOAA’s Satellite Information Service, said during a presentation at the Space Weather Enterprise Forum Oct. 20.
NOAA requested $2.5 million in 2016 to start planning the mission, but the request went nowhere in Congress, which zeroed the mission in draft spending bills produced this summer.
NOAA has been in fact-finding mode on commercial space weather data buys for several years, though the effort has so far proved little except that industry is interested, but presently incapable of providing such data. In 2008, NOAA spread $200,000 in commercial space-weather feasibility studies among five companies: Iridium Communications of McLean, Virginia; Space Services Inc. of Houston; Orbcomm of Fort Lee, New Jersey; Microsat Systems of Canada; and GeoOptics of Pasadena, California.
NOAA’s most recent overture to industry on space weather was in 2014, when the agency issued requests for information on collecting solar wind data from L1. What NOAA found, as far as commercial providers are concerned, is that there are “not too many yet going out to L1,” Steve Volz, assistant administrator for NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service said at the Space Weather Enterprise Forum.
Recognizing that dependence on SOHO will continue for the immediate future, the new Space Weather Action Plan directs NOAA, NASA and the Defense Department to develop a strategy for operating SOHO’s Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph for as long as possible. That strategy is due to the White House by October 2016.
SOHO was built by the European Space Agency and is operated by NASA, which launched the satellite in 1995.
NASA spends about $2 million a year on SOHO coronagraph operations and notionally plans to maintain that level of spending through 2020, according to the 2016 budget the White House requested for the agency in February. Late last year, the European Space Agency cleared SOHO to continue operations through 2016.
Meanwhile, the Space Weather Action Plan seeks to rally support for the U.S.-Taiwanese Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (COSMIC) series of GPS radio occultation satellites, which despite a history of operational success has lately faced funding uncertainty in Congress.
The White House’s plan directs the Defense Department and NOAA to fold the type of data that would be gathered by 12 planned COSMIC-2 spacecraft into space-weather forecasting models by 2018 — around the time NOAA wants to finish launching the constellation.
GPS radio occultation satellites measure atmospheric distortion of GPS signals. The resulting data are useful for both space and terrestrial weather models. COSMIC-2, for example, will carry space weather sensors developed by the Air Force.
Without mentioning COSMIC-2 by name, the Space Weather Action Plan directs NOAA and the Defense Department to “enable and sustain the acquisition and delivery of satellite-based Global Navigation Satellite System radio occultation data with sufficient geographical coverage, data-rate, and latency to satisfy operational ionospheric-forecasting requirements” by 2018.
NOAA wants to launch the COSMIC-2 constellation in two tranches of six. The first group, tentatively set to launch next year in the debut mission of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, would operate in a 24-degree low Earth orbit. The U.S. Air Force is paying for the launch as part of its Space Test Program-2 mission.
The second tranche of COSMIC-2 satellites could launch as soon as late 2018, according to NOAA’s 2016 budget request. Those spacecraft would head to a 72-degree low Earth orbit. COSMIC-2, a follow on to the six-satellite COSMIC-1 constellation that launched in 2006, is expected to cost about $420 million, split evenly between the two partners.
The House approved NOAA’s roughly $20 million request for COSMIC-2 sensors and ground systems in a draft 2016 spending bill it passed in June. Senators cut that request in half, providing funding for ground systems, but not for the sensors intended for the second batch of COSMIC-2 satellites.