Office of Public Affairs
Carmeyia Gillis, NOAA Space Environment Center
(301) 763-8000 ext. 7163
March 20, 2006
NOAA SPACE ENVIRONMENT CENTER: EARTH'S FIRST DEFENSE AGAINST THE SUN'S FURY
Space Weather Week Set for April
The NOAA Space Environment Center is the nation's first defense against
the affects of solar weather and the official source of space weather
alerts and warnings. "It can be difficult for people to believe that
space weather can affect life on earth, but in fact it can have a
tremendous impact on communication and navigation systems, satellites,
electric power grids, and astronauts working and living in space," said
Larry Combs, space weather forecaster at the NOAA Space Environment
Center in Boulder, Colo.
Space weather describes the conditions in space that affect Earth and
its technological systems. Space weather is a consequence of the
behavior of the sun and the nature of the Earth's magnetic field and
atmosphere. The solar disturbances categorized in space weather storms
are: Radio Blackouts, Solar Radiation Storms and Geomagnetic Storms.
These storms can interfere with the normal operation of radio
communications used by airlines and emergency response teams, military
detection or early-warning systems, Global Positioning Systems (GPS),
satellite components and spacecraft operations. Solar storms also have
the potential to impact large power transformers and even cause a
large-scale blackout in North America. Solar storms also create a
biological threat to both astronauts and people flying in aircraft at
high altitudes and latitudes.
"People are becoming more dependent on technology; the potential
far-reaching and dramatic impacts of space weather are making our
mission more vital each day," said Bill Murtagh, NOAA space weather
forecaster. "Accurate space weather measurements and predictions are
vital in mitigating the potential impact of these storms."
Like the prediction of weather events on Earth, forecasting space
weather begins with a thorough analysis of the environment. However,
space weather forecasters begin their analysis at the sun and end it
with an analysis of the magnetic and radiation environment right here on
Earth. NOAA Space Environment Center forecasters use observations from
both ground- and space-based sensors to assess the current state of the
space environment. Forecasters look for recurrent patterns of solar
activity and use models similar to those used in meteorology to predict
solar storms. After a thorough analysis, forecasters are able to predict
space weather on time scales of hours to weeks.
In addition to forecasting, alert messages for space weather events are
issued to thousands of customers when specific levels of activity occur.
When these solar storm levels are predicted or exceeded, agencies around
the world take immediate action to mitigate the threat. Electric power
grid operators initiate protective measures to prevent transformer
damage and blackout conditions; major airlines reroute flights away from
high latitudes to avoid the increased radiation and communication
problems; drilling and surveying agencies relying on GPS, cease
operations; and space agencies postpone satellite launches and take
action to protect sensitive instruments on satellites in orbit.
The NOAA Space Environment Center also provides space weather services
to many government agencies, including the departments of Energy,
Transportation, Defense, Homeland Security, in addition to NASA and the
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. NOAA space weather forecasters
coordinate with NASA radiation experts daily. During large radiation
storms, NASA relocates astronauts to a safer location on the
International Space Station. NASA also is very concerned about the
potentially debilitating effects of solar radiation on spacecraft
avionics and will power-down the billion dollar robotic arm and
workstation during large radiation storms. The NOAA Space Environment
Center provides support for deep-space missions, including, most
recently, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Stardust mission.
To adhere to FAA regulations, airlines must be cognizant of space
weather conditions, because certain forms of communications are rendered
useless during solar storms. FAA rules require reliable and rapid
communications at all times between en-route aircraft and dispatch
offices and air traffic control units. The NOAA Space Environment Center
also contributes vital information for the FAA's Solar Radiation Alerts.
If a significant solar radiation storm is detected on the NOAA GOES
satellites, the FAA Civil Aerospace Medical Institute issues a Solar
Radiation Alert. This information enables aviation companies to decide
whether or not reducing aircraft flight altitudes or re-routing an
aircraft is appropriate.
In addition to being the lead national and the international warning
center for disturbances in the space environment, the NOAA Space
Environment Center conducts and leads important research and development
programs. These efforts contribute significantly to the understanding of
the space environment and help improve services. NOAA Space Environment
Center staff also provides critical inputs for government and industry
policy makers and planners. The Forecast Center of the NOAA Space
Environment Center is jointly operated by NOAA and the U.S. Air Force.
NOAA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is dedicated to
enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction
and research of weather and climate-related events and providing
environmental stewardship of the nation's coastal and marine resources.
Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS),
NOAA is working with its federal partners and nearly 60 countries to
develop a global monitoring network that is as integrated as the planet
Relevant Web Sites:
* NOAA Space Environment Center
* NOAA Primer on Space Weather
* NOAA Space Weather Education/Outreach
* NOAA Space Weather Scales
* NOAA Space Weather Week -- April 25-28, 2006, in Boulder, Colo.
Systems affected by space weather. Credit: NOAA