November 29, 2012
Credit: Credit: NASA
Space weather — the high-energy interactions of the Sun with Earth and its surroundings — is a growing economic factor as more of the economy goes wireless, but U.S. government efforts to forecast it are hampered by a shortage of funding.
House Science Committee witnesses from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is responsible for operational space-weather forecasting, and NASA, which funds the space science that feeds the NOAA space-weather models, agreed Nov. 28 with the thrust of the latest National Research Council (NRC) decadal survey on space weather, which was released in August.
At the top of the priority list, which was based on a survey of researchers in solar and space physics, was a call to complete the current program of spacecraft designed to expand knowledge of how the Sun’s violent nature affects the space around it. Collectively the 18 solar-observation spacecraft NASA is flying, and the network of ground facilities run by the National Science Foundation (NSF), comprise a virtual “Heliophysics Systems Observatory” that collects information on the solar flares and coronal mass ejections that can damage satellites in space and power grids on the ground, as well as how the solar wind spreads through the Solar System and interacts with Earth’s magnetic field.
But the scientific satellites in the virtual observatory have limited lifetimes that will begin to expire by late in the current decade, and so far there is no plan or money to use the knowledge they collect to establish an operational system.
“We have to have complete observations of the Sun, the interplanetary medium, the effects at Earth,” said Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado, who chaired the NRC’s decadal survey committee. “We have to have the models, the tools that are necessary to tie all this together. This really requires an investment of more resources than are presently available in the budgets of any of the agencies. And so the vision we laid out was one which would require another $100-$200 million per year over this next decade, without doing damage to the basic science or the ongoing activities of NOAA or NSF or any of the other agencies.”
Baker’s panel called for a follow-on study to address the issue of funding and the division of labor between NOAA and NASA. Near-term, he said, NASA could take on more of the operational role carried by NOAA’s National Weather Service if funds for a dedicated operational system aren’t forthcoming.
That is likely, committee members warned, given the current budget crunch across the U.S. government. The decadal survey report included “decision rules” for policymakers to follow as they try to wedge the appetite for expensive space and ground hardware into the dwindling budgets for the relevant agencies. While NOAA and NASA take the lion’s share of responsibility for solar-weather science and forecasting, a senior Democrat on the Republican-led panel suggested the Pentagon could play — and fund — a bigger role.
“One thing that we didn’t have a chance to get on the record was not just the impact to us as civilians, and the impact in this environment, but what the impacts are on our critical infrastructure that’s related to national security,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.).