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NSRC 2023

NASA, NOAA, and the Air Force are working to launch the DSCOVR satellite (above) for launch in 2014 to monitor solar conditions, repurposing a spacecraft first planned 15 years ago. (credit: NASA)

Storm preparations

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There’s good news and bad news on the space weather front. The bad news, for those concerned about the impact severe space weather can have on the Earth, is that the Sun has been active of late, with a series of flares in recent days. These have been too weak to have any significant effect, but serve as a reminder that the Sun is approaching “solar max,” the peak of its 11-year activity cycle, with a greater chance of more, and more severe, solar storms in the months to come.

The consequences of solar storms are becoming more significant as society becomes increasingly dependent on technologies, from satellites to the electrical grid, that can be disrupted by a major storm.

The good news, though, is that this upcoming solar max appears to be relatively weak. An updated solar cycle prediction released last week by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center concludes that solar activity, as measured by sunspots, will peak this fall, but at the lowest level in over a century. While severe solar storms can still take place regardless of the amount of activity, the prediction indicates that the Sun will be less active in this upcoming peak than previous ones.

If that prediction works out, then we may have, at least temporarily, dodged a bullet. While the Sun is not producing more, or more severe, solar storms, the consequences of these storms are becoming more significant as society becomes increasingly dependent on technologies, from satellites to the electrical grid, that can be disrupted by a major storm. And there remain nagging concerns, particularly in the US, that we are not ready to predict or plan for such events.

That concern usually focuses on the state of the satellites used to provide early warning of solar storm events. Unlike meteorology, which uses fleets of dedicated satellites in geostationary and polar orbits to monitor terrestrial weather, the space weather community instead uses an ad hoc set of spacecraft in Earth orbit and at the Earth-Sun L1 Lagrange point, 1.5 million kilometers from the Earth towards the Sun. Many of these spacecraft, like the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft, are far past their design life.

Last August, the National Research Council issued a decadal report for solar and space physics, outlining priorities for the field in a manner similar to other decadal surveys in astronomy and planetary science. Among its recommendations was to fly missions to replace ACE, SOHO, and others. “Solar wind measurements from L1 should be continued, because they are essential for space weather operations and research,” the report stated. “The DSCOVR L1 monitor and IMAP STP mission are recommended for the near term, but plans should be made to ensure that L1 measurements continue uninterrupted into the future.”

IMAP, or the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe, is a concept for a mission that would part of a revamped Solar and Terrestrial Probes (STP) program at NASA, another recommendation of the report. As the name suggests, it would study, among other things, the interaction of solar and interstellar magnetic fields, but would also monitor the solar wind. DSCOVR, the somewhat convoluted acronym for the Deep Space Climate Observatory, would be dedicated more to solar weather observations.

“No one is engaged in pulling together a national response,” Mahony said. “We have to establish a clearly defined authority to oversee a comprehensive national solution, not just a warning system.”

DSCOVR has a history even more tortured than its acronym. It was originally proposed in 1998 as Triana, a mission proposed by then Vice President Al Gore to provide real-time full-disk images of the Earth. While NASA embarked on developing the spacecraft (which at one time was manifested to fly on the ill-fated STS-107 shuttle mission), it encountered political headwinds from Congress, where some saw it as more a vanity project than real science. While the scientific case for the mission—including its role in solar observations—was validated by a National Academies study, a change in administrations meant that the project was shelved, and the nearly complete spacecraft put into storage.

Triana, though, has found new life in recent years as DSCOVR, with solar monitoring, rather than Earth observation, as its primary mission. “NOAA and the Air Force have been appropriated funding to refurbish, launch, and operate the DSCOVR satellite to provide continuity of solar wind measurements after the ACE research satellite fails,” Laura Furgione, acting assistant administrator for weather services at NOAA said in testimony at a hearing on space weather and space physical research held by the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee in November. Last month, the Air Force awarded a contract to SpaceX to launch DSCOVR on a Falcon 9 in 2014.

Despite the concerns about the availability of space weather observations from aging satellites, some think the bigger issue is the lack of planning on how to respond to a space weather event. “We have a reasonable warning capability in space,” said Tom Mahony, a senior manager at Ball Aerospace, at a forum about space weather last month held by the Marshall Institute and the TechAmerica Space Enterprise Council. “What we’re missing here is, what’s our response protocol? What does our leadership expect us to do?”

Mahony argued for the need for a more consolidated mechanism within the US federal government to manage the various agencies involved in, or who otherwise have a stake, in space weather and the disruptions and damage they can cause. “No one is engaged in pulling together a national response,” he said. “We have to establish a clearly defined authority to oversee a comprehensive national solution, not just a warning system. We need a commitment to that solution. We need clear and well-defined national response protocols.”

The government is taking some steps along those lines. “Doing space weather is a team sport,” said Michael Bonadonna, executive secretary of the National Space Weather Council, at the Marshall/TechAmerica event. That means bringing together the various agencies involved in studying space weather, including NASA, NOAA, NSF, and the Defense Department, as well as those who have a role in any effects it causes, including FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security.

“Depending upon [electrical grid] system conditions, even a relatively minor storm could have an adverse impact,” said Forbes.

Bonadonna said the government is trying to better coordinate those efforts. “One of our goals have been to establish a ‘sharper point’ on the National Space Weather Program,” he said. That involves the creation through an interagency agreement of what’s called the Unified National Space Weather Capability (UNSWC, pronounced “un-swick”), which he said will allow the various agencies to work better together. UNSWC will be formally established in “a few months,” he said last month, but there’s already a unified space weather portal website that he calls a “one-stop shop to find out what the federal government is doing for space weather.”

But there is still a reluctance to plan for—or, at least, a lack of awareness about—severe space weather events. That may be given society’s propensity to deal with problems on a reactive, rather than proactive, basis: there have been only scattered, and relatively modest, events, like power outages and satellite problems, that have linked directly to solar storms. Mahony said recent research indicated the odds of a “Carrington-level” event—a reference to an 1859 solar storm that disrupted the nascent telegraph network, and would likely do far more severe damage to today’s electrical and communications infrastructures—at 6–12% in the next decade.

But a solar storm doesn’t have to be that severe to cause potentially billions of dollars in damage. “Depending upon system conditions, even a relatively minor storm could have an adverse impact,” said Kevin Forbes, associate professor of economics at Catholic University of America, at the Marshall/TechAmerica forum.

The system conditions Forbes was referring to were those of the electrical grid. The modern-day alternating current electric grid features two kinds of power loads, he said, “real” and “reactive.” The latter is designed to maintain voltages on the system to keep it stable. “Without that reactive power, you have a system that can collapse,” he said.

That reactive power is vulnerable to geomagnetically induced currents (GICs) in the power grid, like those created during solar storms. A March 1989 storm created GICs that increased consumption of reactive power on Hydro-Quebec’s power grid by a factor of eight in only six minutes, Forbes said. That created an imbalance that caused the grid to collapse, knocking out power to millions for nine hours.

Those power outages can have a huge economic impact. Forbes said the August 2003 blackout that hit parts of the northeastern US and Canada—which was not caused by solar activity—caused at least $4 billion in damages. “In my opinion, the true cost was much higher,” he said, although he did not provide a specific dollar value. Accurate prediction of even modest solar storms—at least one hour, and preferably one day, before the onset of any GICs—could help power operators take steps to reduce the chances and severity of any blackout.

Mahoney believes the threat posed by solar storms can be handed with sufficient planning and preparation by government agencies, in cooperation with power companies and others who might be directly affected by it—if they’re willing to make the investment in time and resources. “We have the national resources and capability to render space weather non-threatening,” he said, “so let’s go out and make it happen.”