BOSTON — With solar storms expected to increase in frequency in the near future, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is attempting to raise awareness of space weather issues. However, the efforts of NOAA’s Space Environment Center to develop advanced capabilities to monitor solar conditions continues to be hamstrung by a tight budget, according to Tom Bogdan, who heads the Boulder, Colo.-based organization.
The center traditionally has been funded at around $7.25 million annually, Bogdan said. Additional funding would be needed to develop the advanced capabilities that would help NOAA monitor solar storms and their impact on Earth, he said.
Solar storms can disrupt a number of systems on Earth and in Earth orbit including the operation of power grids and satellite and terrestrial communications such as radio and television transmissions.
The center takes data from satellites and terrestrial sensors, and plugs it into models that generate daily reports for customers ranging from spacecraft operators to power companies. However, simply maintaining the center’s traditional budget has been a challenge in recent years due to internal pressures, Bogdan said.
NOAA requested $6.2 million for the Space Environment Center in 2008, $1.3 million less than its budget for 2007, according to an agency budget document posted online. The document described the decrease as being reflective of “higher priority requirements.”
Kent Laborde, a spokesman at NOAA headquarters in Washington, said examples of higher priority efforts include mandated pay raises for federal employees and budget increases for satellites, weather service warning infrastructure, implementation of new fisheries legislation and climate monitoring programs.
If Congress approves a budget that is smaller than what the center received in 2007, the center will have to reduce the amount of money it spends on developing new forecasting models and integrating them into routine operations, as well as cut back on outreach efforts, according to the document.
Planned outreach efforts for 2008 that have been eliminated in the budget request include the development of materials and interaction with students ranging from kindergarteners to high school seniors, Bogdan said. Students, even at the college level, rarely have the funds to travel, so the center had hoped to send officials on school visits, he said.
The outreach funding also would have allowed agency officials to travel for conferences and workshops, Bogdan said. This would have enabled them to learn more about space weather research supported by agencies like the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Pentagon, he said. It also would have enabled them to attend other conferences to cultivate potential new customers who are dependent on space-based capabilities like GPS, he said.
The center is trying to deal with this shortfall by inviting potential customers to visit its facilities in Boulder, he said.
However, the center still will likely be able to engage in some outreach activities due in part to outside funding from other government agencies that deal with space weather, Bogdan said. One activity that is likely to continue is the Space Weather Workshop, an annual week-long program that takes place in Boulder in the springtime and is attended by customers and scientists who work with space weather, he said.
This year, t he workshop begins April 23.
The Space Environment Center also began a new outreach effort this month with the Space Weather Enterprise Forum, which ran over two days in early April. The new forum is viewed as a key part of increasing awareness of space weather issues for an audience including policymakers and industry with the approaching peak in solar storms, Bogdan said.
The relative lull in solar storms over the past seven years could have induced some complacency among those who could be affected by space weather conditions, Bogdan said. At the same time, dependence on satellites like the constellation of GPS navigation spacecraft has grown considerably, he said.
In addition to raising awareness about space weather, the forum was intended to generate feedback from customers about the utility of the Space Environment Center’s current products, and ideas from customers for new products, Bogdan said.
If participant feedback indicates that this year’s event was a success, the Space Environment Center might pursue outside funding to hold the event again next year, Bogdan said.
The airline industry is one example of a customer that could benefit from increased awareness of space weather and improved forecasting capabilities, Bogdan said. Aircraft departing from places like East Coast cities to Asian countries often fly at extreme northern latitudes and high altitudes in an effort to save time and fuel, he said.
However, doing so also could expose aircraft to other problems during periods of high solar radiation levels, Bogdan said. Solar storms also can interfere with communications signals, he said. If airlines have more advanced warning of dangerous space weather conditions, they can make decisions such as flying at a lower altitude, or canceling a flight earlier with more time to reroute passengers, he said.
Better forecasting of solar storms also could be important in the future for NASA as it prepares to send astronauts back to the Moon, and later to Mars, Bogdan said. The same investment to develop improved prediction capabilities for those astronauts also could payoff in better capabilities for customers on Earth, he said.