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Space Weather (10-31-03)

Space weather refers to conditions on the sun and in the solar wind, magnetosphere, ionosphere, and thermosphere that can cause disturbances in the outer layers of the Earth’s atmosphere. Highly energized particles from the sun disrupt the upper layers of the Earth’s atmosphere, causing geomagnetic storms that result in increased radiation and rapid changes in the direction and intensity of the Earth’s magnetic field. These conditions can influence the performance and reliability of space-borne and ground-based technological systems and can endanger human life or health. Government and private sector organizations concerned with communications, satellite operations, electric power grids, human space flight, and navigation use space weather information.

The Space Environment Center (SEC), part of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), provides real-time monitoring and forecasting of solar and geophysical events, conducts research in solar-terrestrial physics, and develops techniques for forecasting solar and geophysical disturbances. SEC's Space Weather Operations Center is jointly operated by NOAA and the U.S. Air Force and is the national and world warning center for disturbances that can affect people and equipment working in the space environment.

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Mother Nature got the attention of policymakers on Capitol Hill with a huge magnetic solar storm that arrived at Earth on October 30th, just a day after an earlier one hit the planet in what one astronomer told The Washington Post was "an unprecedented one-two punch." It served to underscore the importance and vital work being performed by the Space Environment Center (SEC).

On October 30th, the House Science Subcommittee on Environment, Technology and Standards held a hearing on space weather. Spurred to action by the solar storms, a proposed cut in funding for next year, and a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee report which called for the activites performed by the SEC to be transferred to other government agencies, the Subcommittee wanted to find out more about the Center's activities.

Dr. Ernest Hildner, Director of the Space Environment Center, provided the Subcommittee with an overview of the SEC, the services it provides and its collaborations with other Federal agencies. Colonel Charles L. Benson, Jr., Commander of the Air Force Weather Agency explained the mission of Air Force Space Weather Operations Center and the way the Air Force and NOAA work together on space weather prediction. Dr. John M. Grunsfeld, Chief Scientist at NASA discussed the effects of space weather on NASA operations. Formerly employed by Minnesota Power, John Kappenman, now the Manager of Applied Power Systems at Metatech Corporation, talked about the effects of space weather events on electric power grid system. Similarly, Hank Krakowski, Vice President of Corporate Safety, Quality Assurance, and Security at United Airlines testified to the affects of space weather on the airline industry, including air traffic control communications and human health concerns. Finally, the Subcommittee heard from Dr. Robert Hedinger, Executive Vice President of Loral Skynet. He explained the implications of space weather events for communications satellites and the overall commercial satellite sector.

Regardless of the specialized expertise each witness brought to the hearing, each emphasized the important work the SEC is doing and how well equipped they are to do it. With the SEC's budget currently in limbo and the Senate Commerce-Justice-State Appropriations Subcommittee slashing their budget and suggesting in their report that the SEC's work could easily be performed by another agency, such as the Air Force Weather Agency or NASA, the SEC needed to make the case to Members of Congress that their work is vital.

The members of the Subcommittee heard this message. Following the hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) said, "It is clear from today's hearing that (1) the services that NOAA's SEC provides are unique and vital to our nation and its citizens every day, much more so than people realize; and (2) it is neither in the mandate nor the mission of the Air Force or NASA to take on these crucial responsiblitites. Such a transfer would require significant cost expenditures above the $8 million sought by the Administration for the SEC. It would also undoubtedly cause a temporary to intermediate loss of space weather forecasting services at a time when many critical U.S. industries and the public increasingly rely on these forecasts every day." Ehlers continued, "I believe this is a case of if it isn't broke then we shouldn't try to fix it." He further vowed to share these views with members of the Appropriations Subcommittee.

These sentiments were echoed on the other side of the aisle by the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee, Mark Udall (D-CO). He said, "Space weather forecasting is no less essential than terrestrial weather forecasting. We have increased our reliance on satellites, air travel, and electric grid generation and transmission -- all of which are vulnerable to space weather events -- and the SEC ensures that these investments are protected. Given the huge investments that taxpayers have made in the technology to monitor space weather, it would be the height of folly to withdraw our support for the activites of the SEC." Udall concluded his remarks by saying, "If the SEC was not already in existence, we would have to create it. It's clear that the proposed cuts in the Center's budget request are ill-advised. The Sun sent us a signal this week, one the conferees for the Commerce-State-Justice Appropriations bill should heed."


The Space Environment Center is funded through NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR). In FY03, the SEC received $5.2 million ($2 million below FY02 levels). For FY04, the administration requested $8 million for the SEC. At the time of the hearing, the FY04 appropriations process was ongoing in Congress. The House Commerce-Justice-State (CJS) bill, H.R. 2799, passed in July, provides $5.2 million for the SEC (same level as FY03). The Senate CJS bill, S. 585, has been approved by the full Appropriations Committee but it is not yet approved by the full Senate. It recommends no funding for SEC and suggests that the Air Force or NASA should assume the responsibility of forecasting space weather. Funding for some of the sensors and satellites that provide data to the SEC is already provided by other agencies, such as NASA and the Air Force, but NOAA’s SEC is the national center for data collection and forecasting of space weather events.

Sources: THOMAS legislative database, House Science Committee press releases, Subcommittee on Environment, Technology and Standards hearing testimony, Space Environment Center website, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, The Washington Post

Contributed by Emily M. Lehr, AGI Government Affairs Program

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated on October 31, 2003