Op-ed | Making Space Safer
On Oct. 29, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) unveiled an action plan for the United States to address space weather. A gathering of more than 200 government, industry and academic leaders witnessed the unveiling of an interagency approach to deal with this little-appreciated natural threat. As OSTP Director John Holdren noted in his welcoming address, most people are well aware of risks associated with severe terrestrial weather. But most people are not aware that solar flares, intense solar particle bursts and powerful magnetic storms on Earth can devastate modern human technologies.
As another keynote speaker said at the White House meeting, the U.S. has been making “operational” weather forecasts of thunderstorms, snowstorms and hurricanes for almost 150 years. But specific forecasts of nonrecurrent space storms, by comparison, are only a few decades along. Yet our national electric power grid, our thousands of satellites in Earth orbit and virtually all of our crucial electronic gadgetry are extremely vulnerable to the effects of severe space weather.
The current capability of our technological society to predict space weather is primitive. We observe the sun, and we can see the general properties of the powerful bursts from solar storms, called coronal mass ejections, heading in our general direction. But we currently have only about 30 minutes of warning (at best) as to what will impact Earth during severe solar events. This is insufficient time for implementing most mitigation strategies. Outages of communication systems often have no warning time at all.
There is great economic value in improving our capability to predict space weather. More efficient protection of our bulk electrical power grid is necessary as this must operate essentially continuously in the presence of disruptions resulting from space weather. More effective utilization of our communication networks and our GPS tracking systems would result from better forecasts since these can be severely damaged by variations in the space environment.
Is our problem of improving space weather forecasting hopeless? Absolutely not! But it will require a substantial and dedicated operational program.
In an ideal world, government-funded research programs would be chosen to advance our civilization, our way of life and our strategic importance in the world. They would protect our citizens and our economy. From this point of view, research that would result in a sufficient space weather prediction capability would be among our highest national priorities.
Unfortunately, this often is not optimally the case regarding today’s government policy.
The Heliophysics Division of NASA, which has the main responsibility for the research required to improve space weather understanding, is NASA’s smallest science division.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) provides essential resources for the research community conducting space weather research and supports important ground-based observations as well. Yet this NSF activity is part of a division with higher priorities for other geoscience research.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has the responsibility for making the actual space weather forecasts, but these forecasts can only be based upon the models and observations provided by the much larger efforts in other agencies.
In 2012, the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering published the most recent decadal survey in solar and space physics. This survey established the priorities for research relevant for space weather for NASA, NOAA and the NSF in the years 2013-2022. If the survey initiatives were fully funded they would provide much of the research — observations, modeling, theory — required to advance our capabilities to predict space weather on a schedule that serves the important needs of the nation.
The decadal survey also recommended solutions to unproductive bureaucratic disputes between NOAA, NASA and the NSF that often lead to disarray within the extensive research communities that these agencies support and depend upon.
The OSTP Space Weather Action Plan seeks to address many of these issues and shortcomings. It is a good plan for moving forward with solutions to critical issues.
One should recall earlier challenges that the nation has given to its space program. The landing of humans on the moon, for example, was recognized as being of national importance, difficult and expensive to achieve. As President John F. Kennedy said in 1961, “[E]very scientist, every engineer, every technician and civil servant must give his personal pledge that this nation will move forward” in this exciting adventure.
Our economy and our way of life are influenced by, and in many ways are vulnerable to, space weather. The nation should issue a new challenge to the space research community to provide the predictive capability for space weather sufficient to make our economy more resilient and to reduce to an acceptable level our societal vulnerabilities. The nation should recognize that this is a crucial matter, and that substantial resources will be required. In return, the space research community must give its common pledge that it will deliver what the nation requires. The time for budgetary and policy action is now.
Daniel N. Baker is director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.