Glacial pace of space weather modernization

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PHOENIX – Since the U.S. military is extremely reliant on satellites for communications, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and geolocation, the Air Force is striving to augment space weather observations and improve forecast models. Unfortunately, progress often occurs at a glacial pace.

“All of you probably learned about climate change and glacier movement,” said Ralph Stoffler, Air Force weather director. “Well this is the glacier of modernization. It moves very, very slowly.”

Funding is not the problem.  “The resources are there,” Stoffler said Jan. 7 at the American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting here. “The problem is the number of folks in industry and everywhere else that are building space weather capabilities are pretty limited.”

This year, the Air Force plans to test prototype Energetic Charged Particle (ECP) sensors with goals of awarding production contracts in 2020 and reaching full operational capability in 2023.

In 2015, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James signed a memo requiring all new satellites that had not completed their final design phase to include an energetic charged particle sensor.

“We continue with mandate to equip all Air Force satellites with ECP sensors,” Stoffler said. “That is moving forward, which is good news.”

The Air Force also wants to purchase space weather data.

“There are a variety of companies selling space weather data,” Stoffler said. “We are looking at each and every one of those to see how the data will help us improve our capabilities. We are going to buy the right data and conduct tests to see if it makes a difference in our models and improves the overall performance.”

In addition, the Air Force is working to improve space weather modeling, hire people with space weather expertise and upgrade ground-based observatories to collect data, digitize it and share it securely via cloud computing.

Since 2018, the U.S. national security strategy has focused on threats posed by the China and Russia, two nations with significant space capabilities. The U.S. must ensure those nations cannot deny or restrict U.S. access to space systems, Stoffler said.

“The military is exceptionally reliant on space,” Stoffler said. “So, we need to do a much better job in performing our space weather missions.”

If a U.S. satellite experiences a problem, for example, it’s important for the Air Force to attribute the cause.

“If something happens to our space capabilities, we are there to determine whether or not it’s a natural problem,” Stoffler said. “Is it Mother Nature doing something or is it somebody else?”