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Progress and obstacles for space weather forecasting

Solar flare protons and energetic electrons affect satellites, avionics and Earth's magnetic field. Credit: NASA

DENVER – While Congress and the Biden Administration recognize the potential threat posed by space weather, the United States needs to improve its ability to monitor and model the phenomenon.

“We’ve got a good team working together these days, but we’ve still got a long ways to go,” James Spann, NASA Heliophysics Division space weather lead, said Jan. 10 at the American Meteorological Society meeting here. The United States needs “a robust fleet of operational satellites that are making the right observations that feed the models that the forecasters can use,” Spann said during a Space Weather Town Hall.

In recent years, government agencies and Congress, recognizing the growing importance of monitoring space weather as the nation becomes increasingly dependent on satellite services, have established working groups and interagency panels and drafted space weather action plans.

“Every critical infrastructure sector could be affected by space weather, either directly or indirectly,” said Mona Harrington, who leads the National Risk Management Center in the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. As a result, one of the National Risk Management Center’s “highest priorities is working with our partners to understand and reduce the risks to infrastructure from extreme and potentially catastrophic space weather events,” Harrington added.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is preparing to enhance its monitoring capability by sending the Space Weather Follow-On being built by Ball Aerospace to Lagrange Point 1 in 2024. Additional missions, part of the Space Weather Next program, are scheduled to launch in 2029, 2030, 2035 and 2037.

“This is the beginning of the space weather era for NOAA as an operational agency,” said Steve Volz, NOAA Satellite and Information Service assistant administrator.

NOAA’s National Satellite Data and Information Service recently established a space weather office, a move that indicates the space weather mission deserves “parity in terms of the importance of the observations” with terrestrial weather and climate, Volz said.

The National Weather Service also received money in the 2023 budget to establish a space weather prediction testbed.

The testbed will bebringing together not only the operational forecasters but researchers, developers and end users, so that people can be in a shared space to explore and evaluate where things are working and where they’re not,” said Mary Erickson, National Weather Service deputy director.

Still, researchers need to determine what additional observations would improve space weather forecasts.

“What is the next thing that we need to observe and how do we model that,” Spann asked. “We need to continually evolve because we’re never going to get to the point where we’ve got it figured out. That’s not going to happen.”

Aside from the technical issues, communications regarding space weather remains a challenge. A survey conducted by the National Weather Service office in Seattle found that fewer than 5 percent of respondents had any plans related to space weather and more than 30 percent had never heard of space weather.

The Biden Administration is well aware of challenges related to space weather education and warnings.

“We are refining our strategic communications messaging for extreme space weather events to ensure that United States is prepared and that we speak with one voice and we’re able to minimize the impact of disinformation or misinformation,” said Ezinne Uzo-Okoro, Office of Science Technology Policy assistant director of space policy.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree...