Just as severe or unexpected weather can disrupt economic and security-related activities throughout society, so too can space weather. The Sun’s activity drives major fluctuations in Earth’s environment on both long and short time scales. Severe solar storms can produce radiation and cause disturbances in the solar wind that may impact geospace for days.
Space weather storms rage through Earth’s environment, intensifying the Van Allen radiation belts, distorting the ionosphere, and creating large fluctuations in the magnetic field at Earth’s surface. These disturbances can damage spacecraft electronics, create a radiation hazard for astronauts, interfere with high-frequency radio communication, degrade GPS positioning and navigation, and disrupt electric power transmission.
A comprehensive program consisting of observations, analyses, and numerical prediction models is essential to advancing space weather forecasting capabilities. Continuously observing the space environment is crucial, as is analyzing, interpreting, and distilling the data into meaningful operational products. The imperative to improve space weather prediction capabilities underlies much of the research recommended in the decadal survey. In addition, the nation requires applied research specifically focused on the development of applications with direct societal benefit. To that end, the decadal survey recommends that NOAA establish a space weather research program to effectively transition research to operations and that distinct funding lines for basic space physics research and for space weather specification and forecasting be developed and maintained. The survey report also includes a recommendation to recharter the National Space Weather Program (NSWP: http:///www.nswp.gov), an interagency initiative to improve coordination of space weather services.
Today, the Heliophysics System Observatory, supported by NASA, NSF, and NOAA, collects much of the information that is essential
(Top) Sunspots producing a solar flare that contributed to the massive 1859 storm, sketched by Richard Carrington. The Carrington event started fires in long-distance telegraphs and the auroras were seen nearly at the equator. (Bottom) A solar flare captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory on May 13, 2013, in multiple ultraviolet wavelengths showing structures at different temperatures. Radiation from flares has damaged and disabled spacecraft in Earth orbit and at Mars.
to maintaining continuous knowledge of space weather conditions. NASA, NSF, NOAA, DoD, FEMA, and other federal agencies, as well as private groups use these and other sources of data worldwide to conduct research and to generate operational products and services. Enabled by advances in scientific understanding as well as fruitful interagency partnerships, the capabilities of models that predict space weather impacts on Earth have made rapid gains over the past decade. Reflecting these advances and the increasing vulnerability of society to the adverse effects of space weather, the number of users of real-time space weather information services has grown exponentially.
Number of unique customer subscribers routinely receiving space weather services electronically from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (in blue).
Routine space weather observations from science missions are indispensable for operational predictions. In particular, the solar wind upstream of Earth and remote observations of the Sun’s corona and photosphere are essential. Therefore, the decadal survey recommends that critical solar wind, coronagraph, and solar magnetic field observations be continuously available. Maintaining funding for the long-term continuity of data needed for research and operational services, as well as for the historical database necessary for space climatology, remains a significant challenge. In addition to extensive U.S. efforts, international partnerships are an important factor in ensuring the availability of the comprehensive suite of required measurements and numerical models.
As research models and theories mature, forecasts are improving; however, critical limitations in capabilities are driving new research and innovation. To improve future predictive capability, the decadal survey recommends that new observations, locations, and observing platforms be evaluated. The interplay between research, observations, and operations is key to advancing national capability to predict space weather and to providing adequate knowledge of space climatology, both of which are increasingly imperative for the benefit of society.