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Space Weather Funding in Jeopardy

By | October 20, 2003

      By Bruce Mahone

      A funding dispute in Washington threatens an important U.S. government organization that provides space-related weather information used by satellite operators, airlines and others.

      The Space Environment Center (SEC) in Boulder, Colorado may have to close its doors in the coming months, after its funding recently was slashed by the House and cut entirely by the Senate. Although other government entities collect data on weather in space, the center serves as a focal point for aggregating and disseminating the full range of important space weather information.

      Users of the center’s data include an array of agencies, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Defense (DoD), as well as the private sector.

      The elimination of the center could have a devastating impact on the airline industry, the U.S. space program, the power distribution grid, worldwide navigation and U.S. military exercises. The center is jointly operated by NOAA and the U.S. Air Force.

      If the SEC is forced to shutdown, some or all of the following effects could be expected:

      Critical Navigational Errors

      Solar events and magnetic storms can interrupt or degrade navigation signals from the terrestrial LORAN system and the satellite-based GPS. This interference could lead to navigation system failures or, even worse, false position readings. Navigators notified by SEC of such intense space weather could switch to backup navigation systems, thus avoiding misdirected vehicles and potential crashes.

      Military Consequences

      Electromagnetic signals caused by solar emissions influence HF communications, satellite communications, and GPS navigation signals. They also increase interference or false returns to sunward and/or poleward looking radars. Those who track satellites and other objects in orbit can potentially lose their targets because of these changes in the atmosphere caused by space weather.

      Astronaut Radiation

      Astronauts venturing outside the Space Shuttle or International Space Station during intense solar activity could be subject to dangerously high levels of radiation.

      Loss of Electrical Power Grids

      For economic reasons, many portions of the U.S. power grid regularly operate at peak capacity. If faced with a voltage spike induced by a magnetic storm, many nodes on the grid could not handle the surge and would fail. If alerted that a magnetic storm is coming, however, grid operators could reduce the amount of electricity flowing through the grid, allowing “space” for the coming voltage spike, and thus avoid having the system fail.

      Airline Passenger Radiation

      Commercial airlines and high-altitude business jets flying polar routes during intense solar flares are subject to radiation doses as injurious to humans as the low-level radiation from a nuclear blast. This is the equivalent of 100 chest x-rays and could lead to increased cancer rates among crew and passengers. Without space weather information, aircraft operators would not know when to change direction to safer non-polar routes.

      Some in Congress believe that NOAA should stick to its core mission of tracking weather within the Earth’s atmosphere and not concern itself with weather patterns in space. Space weather, however, does enter the Earth’s atmosphere and, as noted above, affect systems on the ground.

      Others are concerned that funding for the center comes from a portion of NOAA’s budget designated for scientific research, rather than for operational forecasting. This thinking is not, however, reflective of the center’s work. Forecasting space weather and using the forecasts in real time is still in its infancy.

      The view of the aerospace industry is that the SEC is not “broken,” so there is no reason to “fix” it by moving its function to NASA, DoD or another agency. And curtailing the services provided by the center should not be an option, particularly considering the hazardous environment in which we find ourselves. Keeping our nation safe, secure, and economically viable requires every bit of critical information available. A major component of that information is space weather.

      AIA is taking an active role with its space council and legislative staff to ensure funding for the center is restored. The $5 million to $8 million that the office requires per year is modest compared to the benefits of the valuable services it provides.

      Bruce Mahone is director of space policy for the Washington-based Aerospace Industries Association of America. He can be contacted by telephone at 703/358-1095.

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