NOAA Proposes Modest Space Weather Follow-On Program (Updated)

NOAA Proposes Modest Space Weather Follow-On Program (Updated)

Concern about the damaging effects of “space weather” on satellites and Earth infrastructure like the electric grid has been growing in recent years.  At the same time, spacecraft positioned between the Earth and the Sun to warn of such events are aging.  NOAA’s FY2019 budget request proposes a Space Weather Follow-On (SWFO) program to replace some of those capabilities, but it is quite modest compared to what the agency was planning two years ago.

Space weather refers to ejections from the Sun — Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) and solar wind — that can overload systems on Earth and in orbit that are critical to daily life, such as the electric grid or communications and navigation satellites.

NOAA operates a Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, Colorado that alerts the aviation, radio communications, electric power, satellite, and emergency management communities when a severe space weather event is about to occur so officials can take precautions.

Space weather phenomena. Credit: Steele Hill/NASA.

Those warnings are based in part on data from three spacecraft positioned at the L1 Sun-Earth Lagrange point located 1 million miles from Earth in the direction of the Sun.  Europe’s Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) has a number of instruments including a coronagraph that blocks the light from the Sun, enabling it to image the Sun’s corona for CMEs.  NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) and the NOAA-NASA-Air Force Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) detect solar wind — the flow of particles from the Sun.  SOHO and ACE are still operational, but quite old.  SOHO was launched in 1995 and ACE in 1997.  DSCOVR was launched in 2015.

For FY2017, NOAA proposed initial funding of $2.5 million for a “space weather follow-on” program.  It envisioned spending $368 million over the next five years to build and launch two new satellites, the first of which would be in place by 2022, the end of DSCOVR’s planned lifetime.  Congress doubled the FY2017 funding to $5 million.  The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee also reported a Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act to clarify agency responsibilities in this area.

That bill never passed, but the Senate did pass a new version (S. 141) last year.  A companion House bill (H.R. 3806) has been introduced.  Those bills address policy, however, not funding.

Funding would come through NOAA’s appropriations bills, but with the change in administrations, NOAA did not follow through with its FY2017 plan in the FY2018 request.  It sought only $500,000 while it assessed alternatives for a path forward (Congress has not completed action on that request).

The Trump Administration’s decision is represented in the FY2019 request and is quite modest compared to the FY2017 proposal.  Instead of building two new satellites, NOAA would spend $10 million a year for the next 5 years to build a new coronagraph to image CMEs and a new solar wind instrument.  They would be incorporated into other satellites already under development.

Antonio Busalacchi, President, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR). Credit: UCAR/Carlyle Calvin.

A Compact Coronagraph (CCOR), being developed by the Naval Research Laboratory with NOAA funding, would be placed on NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-U (GOES-U) scheduled for launch in 2024 or another “partnership mission.”  It would be in Earth orbit rather than at L1 like SOHO.  For solar wind, NOAA is “exploring a partnership with NASA” to place a yet-to-determined instrument on NASA’s Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) that is in early planning stages for launch in 2024.  IMAP would be positioned at LI.

Antonio Busalacchi, President of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) in Boulder, said via email to that “CCOR and a solar wind instrument will adequately replace the operational capability that we’re losing. But they are no more than a stopgap — they provide the same kinds of measurements that we have now. What we need are advanced imaging capabilities, either ground-based or space-based, to measure magnetic fields throughout the solar atmosphere that are critical for more accurate space weather forecasting.”

University of Michigan Distinguished University Professor of Space Science Lennard Fisk agrees.  Fisk, a former NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science and Applications and former chairman of the Space Studies Board at the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, told via email that “there is a need for a much more capable observing system for space weather forecasting.”  Although the space-and ground-based infrastructure of “our technological society … is vulnerable to space weather,” we cannot forecast it “with sufficient accuracy and timeliness.”  Fisk was a member of the Academies’ 2013 Decadal Survey for Solar and Space Physics, which devoted a chapter to a “vision” of future space weather capabilities that are needed and why.

Note:  This article was updated with the quote and other information from Len Fisk.


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