Preparing for Everything Under the Sun

by Joshua Sparber

The Space Weather Conference in Broomfield, Colorado, on 25-29 April 2016 focused on improving space weather models and exploring more diverse and effective research tools. Current U.S. policy has shifted in favor of more research and funding, which can only be accomplished through better cooperation between the public and private sectors.

A bright future awaits those whose interest is modeling solar events and the vulnerability of technology to solar events. Attention from the White House has stimulated increased funding, awareness of a need for improving modeling capabilities, and the need for joint government to industry partnerships. Latest policy updates are the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act (S2817), the October 2015 National Space Weather Action Plan, and the October 2015 National Space Weather Strategy. The commercial sector will assist with increased research and technological operations, including small businesses conducting independent research. The United States Geological Survey has also been given a $1.7M increase in funding.

Status of Space Weather Research  The conference had a strong focus on increasing insight into the current sunspot Cycle 24, the sunspot cycle the sun has been undergoing since 2009. The year 2020 is the anticipated beginning of Cycle 25. Each morning, a prediction of the day’s space weather was advanced. The subjects of many of the talks were about advancements in Cycle 24 event predictability. These predictions would include sunspot counts, size and speed of coronal mass ejections and solar winds, Earth-based magnetic and electric fields, interactions of Earth and solar fields, and geoelectric sensing for individual power grid stations.

The following solar-scanning satellites will become available in the near future. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) will be operational in June 2016. DSCOVR will be NOAA’s first deep space observatory, a “space buoy” with a National Space and Aeronautics Administration (NASA) four-megapixel charge-coupled device camera. This satellite, deploying a million miles out, will enable scientists to assess better data on how solar storms impact Earth’s ozone, aerosols, cloud height and phase, vegetation properties, surface hotspots and Ultraviolet radiation.

NASA’s Solar Probe Plus should launch in July 2018. This satellite’s ultimate 3.7 million mile proximity from the sun should at least assist existing instrumentation to gather better solar data. Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R Series (GOES-R), a collaborative program of NOAA and NASA, has a launch date of 13 October 2016. Through a United States-Taiwan partnership, Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (COSMIC-2) is being readied; however, funding is not yet available. These latter two satellites will more intensively gather actionable data on solar events affecting Earth’s weather.

Other satellites study the solar “architecture” that leads to solar effects. The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), launched in 1995, now shares this duty with at least two other satellites. The Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) employs two satellites to stereoscopically image coronal mass ejections, and the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) takes helioseismological measurements.

Many government agencies are involved in data gathering and preparing for Earth weather and space weather extremes: NOAA, the United States Geological Survey, the 557th Air Force Weather Wing, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the National Energy Reliability Corporation, the National Research Laboratory, the Air Force Research Laboratory, the European Space Agency, and the Advanced Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University. NOAA is now planning memorandums of understanding (MOUs) between itself and NASA, and itself and the National Science Foundation. These MOUs should help mold the give-and-take relationship between research and research’s operational implementation: research to operations; and operations to research.

On 28 April 2016, international speakers also described the space weather programs of Japan, Korea, Mexico, Australia, and Ethiopia – all of which are unique in their own ways – and contributed an assortment of viewpoints and measurements to the existing pool of information. One good example is the Australian Energy Market Operators (AEMOs) that protect critical Australian power infrastructure. AEMOs have installed geomagnetic-induced current sensors to help quantify impending solar storm risks to existing Australian power grids.

Another example is the Japanese development of realistic 3-D models of solar flares and a whole atmosphere model called the Ground-to-topside model of Atmosphere and Ionosphere for Aeronomy (GAIA) model. There was also room for a discussion of the historical development of solar observation. The changes in sunspot counting through history and the history of the founding of the NOAA center in Boulder were also highlighted. A side room was reserved for an international crowd of investigators and researchers to display their projects. There were over 60 posters and displays from sources of worldwide scope. One display showed an iPhone application with a 3-D display of an Earth Aurora space weather model.

Touchstones of Progress A salient point of the conference was the search for a “money chart,” a depiction of the danger of a space weather event so crystal clear that decision makers could consider it “actionable.” A Hurricane Sandy depiction was an example, showing the landfall pattern within a tolerance band. Space weather instruments could piggyback on a larger satellite. These “CubeSats” would save the fuel and the expense of a separate satellite. Retired Admiral Thad Allen (who led the Coast Guard’s efforts following Hurricane Katrina and currently serves as executive vice president for Booz Allen Hamilton), retired Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher (now chief executive officer for GeoOptics), and others debated pathways to the space weather “enterprise.” Conference takeaways included:

  • Improving data will evolve understanding from space weather into space climate.

  • A part of future capability should be “now-casting” as well as forecasting.

  • Joint government/academic/commercial ventures will contribute significantly to scientific advances in the United States during times of limited federal budgets.

  • The White House is concerned with space weather and will assist worthy projects.

  • Successfully addressing highest impact concerns involves international partnerships.

  • Better models will enable more research pushes from users (operations to research).

  • Models are being linked together for a more comprehensive view of effects.

The NOAA Boulder Space Weather Prediction Center The tour of the NOAA Boulder Space Weather Prediction Center (David Skaggs Center) features a downstairs monitoring center, several floors of offices, and a large suspended spherical projector upstairs, named Science on a Sphere. The glassed off solar weather monitoring control room hosts multiple rows of multicolored depictions of daily solar behaviors, with controls underneath. In the visitor area, a large screen transmits these same dynamics. On weekdays, monitors check portions of solar activity and clone information received into daily reports. On weekends, weekly reports are compiled.

In a darkened room, Science on a Sphere displays dozens of projected Earth, sun, planetary, and exoplanetary scenarios in color. These displays result from the projection automation of four computer-controlled cameras. A small sampling of Earth displays were 3-D mappings on the sphere of earthquakes, auroras, hurricanes, wind directions, ocean currents and acidity, carbon dioxide parts per million, worldwide disease vectors, and global air traffic (see Figures 1 and 2). These depictions can time-sequence into the future, rotate on the sphere in any direction, overlay latitude-longitude, and juxtapose attribute labels on the sphere itself – for example, the greatest height of a tsunami based on predictions of the expanding wave. Solar projections capture solar flares, coronas, coronal mass ejections, magnetic fluxes, sunspots, and coronal holes. Downstairs, a large 2-D touch screen mimics these 3-D projections. The 3-D projections can be rotated in any direction by a continuous motion of two fingers placed on the screen itself.

Radiation Experimentation During the banquet on 27 April 2016, Earth to Sky Calculus, a group of young students led by instructor Dr. Tony Phillips, showed how inexpensive (crowd-funded) experiments could form the basis for careers that will be needed in future space science and meteorology by agencies like NOAA. Their experiments yielded exceptional results for understanding the space weather/Earth weather nexus. As an example of an of this type of experiment, this group examined how solar radiation effects on the Earth and Earth life forms can be measured relatively simply and with a minimum of expense. Using a minimal set of instruments, they send weather balloons into the ionosphere, monitor them, and retrieve them after the balloons burst and the lunch box instrumentation gondolas parachute back to Earth.

They have also traveled by plane, comparing radiation dosages to their instrumentation per height and latitude-longitude. By coordinating their work with microbiologists, the group measured the effects of upper atmosphere radiation on single-celled Halobacteria and yeast. Although the uppermost ionospheric reach of the balloons (before bursting and falling) is similar to the surface of Mars, organisms with a radiation-resistant genotype heartily survived the whole journey. Under radiation, Halobacteria, fortunately also turn a yellow color, which grows darker with greater radiation dosage. A future research avenue could be providing visible checks on air pilot radiation dosage. In the future, it may be critical to know the extent of radiation dosage pilots receive during solar storms and solar flares.


Joshua Sparber, after receiving Air Radar training in the U.S. Marine Corps, spent 20 years in the electronics industry. After earning an MSEE from Cal State Fullerton, he has been 15 years with the U.S. Department of Defense, and is involved in system engineering for the government. He has been a member of the International Council on Systems Engineering since 2005 and received his Certified System Engineering Professional certification in 2007. He has been an active and interested member of various environmental groups and has persisted in a lifelong interest in environmental issues. He has just recently completed a masters in environmental policy and management, in which his thesis centers on the impact of naturally occurring electromagnetic pulses on the U.S. national grid and a search for possible system solutions.


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