An increase in solar activity will result in more atmospheric drag on satellites and risk damaging or disrupting those spacecraft. Credit: NASA

After decades of fighting to be taken seriously, meteorologists say space weather is beginning to get the attention it deserves.

The Trump administration continued the Space Weather Operations, Research and Mitigation (SWORM) working group established by the Obama Administration. SWORM is an interagency panel focused on coordination of federal work aimed at building resilience to the effects of space weather. In addition, space weather legislation is pending in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

“Everyone agrees this issue is important and it has to be addressed,” Bill Murtagh, NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center program coordinator, said at the American Meteorological Society (AMS) conference in Boston earlier this year.

For years, space weather experts in government, industry and academia have been pointing out how vulnerable the electric power grid and Global Positioning System satellites are to solar storms.

“The U.S. government has finally figured out that the potential for catastrophic economic impacts from a large space weather event is cause for concern,” David Klumpar, director of Montana State University’s Space Science and Engineering Lab, said by email.

Meanwhile, NASA is preparing to send people beyond low Earth orbit for the first time in 50 years, exposing astronauts to higher levels of the sun’s radiation. Sun activity is likely to rise in the 2020s as the current solar minimum makes way for solar maximum. And the Defense Department is creating a U.S. Space Force.

As solar maximum comes again and the Space Force stands up, we will start having a lot more specific requirements,” Maj. Janelle Jenniges, Air Force Space Weather Integration chief, said at the AMS conference.

NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-U, a follow on to the GOES-R satellite above, will carry a Compact Coronagraph when it launches in 2025. Credit: NASA/Bill White

Even with the renewed attention, experts say, it will take years for the U.S. government to improve the coordination of space weather activities and to fill the gaps in its space weather observing systems.

The National Academies plans to hold a workshop in mid-2020 in the Washington area to examine the U.S. space weather infrastructure and proposals for improving it.

“We want to take a holistic approach rather than an ad hoc opportunistic approach,” Elsayed Talaat, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Projects, Planning and Analysis, said at AMS.

As those discussions take place, key U.S. and European space weather satellites are approaching the end of their lives. NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer, sent to Earth-Sun Lagrange Point 1 in 1997 to monitor solar wind and energetic particles, is expected to run out of propellant around 2024. NASA’s remaining Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory satellite, launched in 2006 to orbit the sun and provide imagery of coronal mass ejections and other phenomena, will detect solar activity days before it reaches Earth for about two more years. The solar panels on NASA-European Space Agency Solar and Heliophysics Observatory (SOHO) are set to stop working by 2025. SOHO has monitored coronal mass ejections from Lagrange Point 1 since 1995.

The job of replacing aging space weather satellites and launching new ones is shared by federal agencies. NASA and the National Science Foundation contribute to space weather research and modeling. NOAA issues space weather forecasts. The Defense Department creates additional classified and unclassified space weather analysis and forecasts.

U.S. Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) introduced the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act in 2019 to clarify the roles and responsibilities of each agency with respect to space weather. The bill also calls on NOAA to develop a replacement for SOHO and directs the Department of Homeland Security to identify critical infrastructure that could be disrupted by space weather. The Senate passed similar legislation in 2017.

In the House, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) introduced a bill, Promoting Research and Observations of Space Weather to Improve the Forecasting of Tomorrow, to delineate federal agency roles and encourage greater information sharing among federal, academic or commercial space weather forecasters. The House Science, Space and Technology Committee approved the legislation in January.

“Space weather can cause significant damage to our infrastructure and our economy,” Perlmutter told SpaceNews by email. “We need to make sure we are all working together to have the best research which informs the best modeling and forecasting possible.”

Although the Senate and House bills are not identical, “their intent is very much the same,” said a congressional aide who asked not to be identified. “Our goal over the coming months is to get together on the same text of the bill. Then, we have a good shot at getting it passed in both the House and the Senate.”

Meanwhile, federal agencies are developing and launching new space weather sensors.

The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center awarded contracts to Applied Technology Associates of Albuquerque New Mexico, and Teledyne Brown Engineering of Huntsville, Alabama, to build prototype Energetic Charge Particle sensors. In 2015, then-Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James issued a memo calling for future Air Force satellites to include an energetic charged particle sensor. The sensors are designed to improve Air Force space weather models and pinpoint which anomalies are caused by the actions of an adversary versus space weather.

NOAA is developing Space Weather Follow On (SWFO), a satellite destined for Earth-Sun Lagrange Point 1 to house the Naval Research Laboratory’s Compact Coronagraph and suite of instruments to measure solar wind. Scheduled for launch in 2024, SWFO is designed to carry on the work of SOHO and NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory launched in 2015.

NOAA forecasters use satellite data for their work at the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado. Credit: NOAA

NOAA also plans to send a second Compact Coronagraph into orbit in 2025 on Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-U.

The joint European Space Agency-NASA Solar Orbiter launched Feb. 9 to observe the sun’s poles, outer atmosphere and solar wind.

In 2024, NASA plans to send Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) to Lagrange Point 1 to study particles and radiation streaming from the sun toward Earth. In addition to providing “real-time solar wind data,” IMAP is designed to host SWFO.

NASA plans to mount another space weather instrument, the Atmospheric Waves Experiment, on the exterior of the International Space Station in 2022 to observe the light in Earth’s atmosphere called airglow and determine “how this combination of forces drives space weather in the atmosphere,” Nicola Fox, NASA’s Heliophysics Division director, said at AMS.

In 2022, NASA is set to launch the Polarimeter to Unify the Corona and Heliosphere mission to observe and track solar wind leaving the sun as well as coronal mass ejections. The PUNCH mission includes four small satellites.

“Three act together to make a widefield imager and the fourth makes a narrow-field imager,” Fox said. “We are already talking to NOAA about how that can help with real-time aspects of space weather.”

Tandem Reconnection and Cusp Electrodynamics Reconnaissance Satellites, a mission designed to ride into orbit as a secondary payload on PUNCH, is focused on gathering information on particles and fields in the region near the North Pole where magnetic field lines curve down toward Earth.

“We are making tremendous progress,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said at AMS. “The most important thing is to take the measurements and start driving them toward predictive power in the space weather domain.”

This article originally appeared in the March 16, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

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 in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...