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Space weather team readies for upcoming solar max

by Ryan Hansen
55th Wing Public Affairs

2/25/2011 - OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. (AFNS) -- Solar max may sound like the name of a super hero, but it's certainly no comic book or 3-D movie.

Solar max is actually the name for the sun's most active period in the solar cycle, consistently producing solar emissions, solar flares and sun spots.

For a little background on the sun's activities, the star goes through roughly 11-year cycles of where it is very active and also relatively calm.

The sun's last solar maximum occurred in 2000 and it is expected to awaken from its current solar minimum and get more active this year.

According to the members of the 2nd Weather Squadron, an active sun can cause all sorts of problems for us.

"Solar weather plays a huge part in the warfighter's mission," said Staff Sgt. Matthew Money, a forecaster with the space weather flight. "Impacts from solar weather can cause radio blackouts, satellite communication failure, satellite orbit changes, satellite surface charging, or short circuits, and radar clutter."

That is why the squadron's worldwide space weather team of roughly 50 active-duty members, civilians and contractors continually analyze, forecast and provide alert notifications for the entire Department of Defense, as well as a slew of other government agencies.

"When space weather causes impacts to earth that meet or exceed warning thresholds our end users are informed within minutes," said Staff Sgt. Jonathan Lash, space weather flight forecaster.

"We send out warning bulletins through a computerized distribution system, (and) we have other graphical products that show what happened in the past six hours around the globe as well as what we expect to happen in the upcoming six hours," he said.

Members of the 2nd WS rely on five ground-based solar observatories as well as a network of satellites orbiting the earth, to accomplish their mission.

"There aren't too many opportunities to be the Air Force's sole provider of something," said Lt. Col. Jim Jones, 2nd WS commander. "In this case, the mission is unique to the entire DOD."

Solar observatories are strategically placed around the globe in such places as Australia, Hawaii, Italy, Massachusetts and New Mexico. They include both optical and radio telescopes and ensure the squadron always has one eye, or ear, on the sun.

"The optical telescope network monitors solar surface features," said Master Sgt. Shane McIntire, the space weather flight chief. "It automatically tracks the sun and directs light to the instruments, which collect data and are controlled by computers. It scans specific regions at a rate of at least twice per minute."

Through filtered lenses space weather analysts are able to perform flare patrol and view sunspots to determine the magnetic complexity of the region.

"The telescope has special filters that isolate a single optical wavelength," said Master Sgt. Shane Siebert, who leads Det. 4's solar observatory for the 2nd WS at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.

"This wavelength, 6563 angstroms, is called hydrogen alpha, or H-Alpha, and is where the majority of solar activity occurs," he said. "Analysts monitor this wavelength from sunrise to sunset, and are looking for specific signatures that may lead to solar flares and other adverse activity."

But not all of the sun's activities can be captured using optical telescopes. Some events have a unique radio-frequency signature that can also be measured.

Using a mixture of technology from the 1970s to the present, radio observatories are able to monitor frequencies in the 25-180 megahertz range, as well as eight other discrete frequencies. Their digitized output is collected by a computer and then processed and analyzed for solar activity.

"We actually are able to detect the specific strength at a given radio frequency," said Maj. Bradley Harbaugh, who commands Det. 5's solar observatory for the 2nd WS at Palehua, Hawaii. "What we detect are energetic solar emissions in (specific) frequency bands or ranges. When detected, we (are able to describe) the start time, duration, intensity and type of solar emission. This helps describe the potential impacts by identifying the characteristics of what may impact earth."

Identifying these solar emissions is crucial to the warfighter's communication abilities.

"If there is solar energy that increases on your frequency, you can try to talk into your radio, but the noise from the sun will be stronger than your transmission, therefore drowning out what you are saying," Major Harbaugh said. "As an operator, you can increase your radio power to try and 'out-broadcast' the sun, but you are also now broadcasting over a much larger area, making your transmission more susceptible to enemy detection. Therefore, the sun's impact must be a consideration when planning a mission."

The squadron's network of satellites includes those owned and operated by the DOD, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They include a combination of systems that are both dedicated solely to space weather as well as a few that utilize space weather sensors.

"We gather a significant amount of data from satellites," Sergeant McIntire said. "Imagery from (satellites) can augment the ground-based network, providing real-time monitoring of solar features at wavelengths that can't be seen from the ground."

Data from all of these sources combined are continually pushed to the space weather operations center at the Air Force Weather Agency here. With this information in hand, the squadron can produce the most reliable space weather forecast possible.

However, even with all of this data, producing a space weather forecast is still much more difficult than creating one for terrestrial weather.

"Space weather is a terribly difficult science and it takes a lot of training and experience," Colonel Jones said.

"Space weather forecasting is very reactive," Sergeant Money said. "The knowledge and tools are not quite up to par in order to do accurate forecasting like we do here on Earth."

It is also important to note that today the world is much more reliant on space-based assets than they were during the last solar max, officials said. With cellular phones, portable navigation devices and satellite television receivers all part of our daily lives, a huge solar weather event could wreak havoc on quite a few different platforms.

"The impact of a solar storm in 2000 was probably not as great, due to the lower density of space technology, and the limited number of consumers utilizing the data," Major Harbaugh said. "However, the ripple from a major solar event now will more likely be felt across a much broader consumer base, the public, since there are many more assets and many more users of space data."

However, with improved technology and an increased knowledge of the sun's activities, the squadron is more prepared than ever for the upcoming solar max, Colonel Jones said.

"Since the last solar max, we've upgraded most of our numerical models in terms of both their basic science and the data they ingest," he said. "That's a direct result of the advances in sensors and the technology that enables rapid data transfer. We can react faster and see farther than ever before."

"We already have members within the unit developing forecast techniques based on signatures we see on the sensors," Sergeant Money said.

So it's a safe bet that the next couple of years will be hectic for the 2nd WS. Their mission to provide situational awareness to key decision makers will certainly keep them busy.

"In the last month alone, we've had (more than 30) reportable energy events," Major Harbaugh said. "The workload has already increased and will continue to do so for probably the next year or two."

"About a year ago, it was not uncommon for an analyst to only have one very small region of the sun to monitor," Sergeant Siebert said. "Today, it is normal for analysts to keep fairly busy monitoring four-to-six regions.

"Studies of the last solar max show that a typical day included 22 active regions, almost four times our current workload," he added.

Regardless, the squadron's space weather analysts, forecasters and technicians around the globe are ready for the sun's upcoming fury, Colonel Jones said.

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