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Space weather forecast system could cost $2 billion

Solar flares and solar winds are common types of space weather NASA measures.

Solar flares and solar winds are common types of space weather NASA measures. // NASA

Variations in space weather have the potential to disrupt the electric power grid, telecommunications and Global Positioning Systems -- virtually all public infrastructure. To predict such disruptions, a comprehensive space weather forecasting system could cost between $1 billion and $2 billion during the next decade, space scientists told members of the House Space, Science and Technology Committee on Wednesday.

Costs would include replacing the Advanced Composition Explorer satellite, which provides data for geomagnetic storm warnings issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s  Space Weather Prediction Center, which has operated  13 years beyond  its two-year design life, Laura Furgione, acting director of the National Weather Service, told the committee’s panel on space and aeronautics.

Furgione said the ACE satellite represents the “single point of failure” for critical geomagnetic storm measurements and NOAA planned to replace it with the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite that NASA developed and placed in storage in November 2001. NOAA plans to launch DSCOVR in 2014, but Furgione told the hearing that it too has a two-year design life.

NOAA will have to consider a variety of options to replace these two key spacecraft, including hosting payloads on commercial satellites, using space weather information provided by other countries and commercial space weather data, Furgione said.

Charles Gay, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, testified that research missions the agency’s multisatellite Heliophysics Explorer program conducted can be adapted to provide solar, solar wind and near-Earth observations essential for NOAA’s space weather forecasting mission. He added NASA has agreed to work with the European Space Agency on a Solar Orbiter Collaboration  project that will use a new satellite slated for launch in 2017 to help where solar winds, plasma and magnetic fields originate in the sun’s corona.

Subcommittee chairman Steven M. Palazzo, R-Miss., said in his opening statement that “as we enter into the next solar maximum -- an 11-year solar cycle marked by increased solar activity -- the availability of solar wind measurements in particular are essential for maintaining our way of life.” But, he added, the need for improved space weather forecasting has to be balanced against budgetary realities, which means a “prudent and careful examination of the core capabilities and essential services” is needed.

Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the  University of Colorado at Boulder and the expert who estimated the space weather program’s costs, said costs could be cut by multiagency cooperation among NOAA, NASA, the Defense Department and the National Science Foundation.

The potential impacts of space weather on the country’s infrastructure and economy demand high-level oversight, Baker said. He recommended a national space weather program be chartered under the auspices of the National Science and Technology Council and include the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget.

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