Press Release

Space weather forecasts clear communication

By SpaceRef Editor
August 5, 2005
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Space weather forecasts clear communication

by Senior Airman Matthew Rosine Air Force Print News

Unblinking, his furrowed brow wrinkles slightly as his eyes sharpen their gaze. After several more minutes, his piercing glance finds a change in the sun’s surface — a change he has been anticipating. He purposefully scoops up the phone as his fingers dance across the keypad.

“This is Sergeant Ybarra from space weather. I have an update.”

Quickly and clearly, he relays the solar activity that just occurred. It will affect Earth in about eight minutes, potentially disrupting communications for hundreds of troops in combat.

“People are going to feel the effects — we are able to tell them how they are going to be affected,” said Sergeant Ybarra, a space weather forecaster with the Air Force Weather Agency at Offut Air Force Base, Neb. “Communications as a whole can be affected. Everything that we do in the Air Force revolves around communication, and that is why it is important to know what frequencies can be affected and where they can be affected at on the Earth.”

Space weather can also have a dramatic effect on nonmilitary facilities. In 1989 a geomagnetic storm and high-velocity solar winds caused the interruption of power from a Canadian power station which had dramatic effects on local communities and received national attention.

“We use satellites on a day-to-day basis for everything, not just (communications,)” Sergeant Ybarra said. “Communication is a big one, but cell phones, pagers, cable TV, satellite TV — everything revolves around communication with satellites, and that is who we help here (at space weather). We help those people who are monitoring where satellites are at all times so they know how to adjust. That is very important because they could lose their signal and you wouldn’t be able to use your cell phone for a certain amount of time. We take those things for granted but they are very important.”

“Most people think that space is empty and it is really not,” said Lt. Col. Trey Cade, chief of the applied technology division of the Air Force Weather Agency. “There are many hazards out there that can affect what we do here on the Earth and affect our systems in space, (such as high-intensity radiation, geomagnetic storms and solar flares. Any of these) could cause problems for Air Force systems, for our communications systems, our satellite operations — all those systems that we rely upon to help fight our wars.”

Through a myriad of observing systems, software and sophisticated computer models, the Airmen of space weather are able to provide several distinctive capabilities such as battlespace awareness.

“Battlespace awareness includes many things. It includes our friendly forces, our adversaries, it includes the physical environment, the weather — the terrestrial realm as well as up in space — and it also includes the threats,” said Col. John Lanicci, AFWA commander. “We have this whole picture. We feel that we are like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance if you added the environment to that, that kind of gives you a complete picture. So we … complete that picture of battlespace awareness.”

Space weather also plays a role in decision superiority.

“As we interpret what is going on in the atmosphere and in space and we analyze those potential effects and impacts on the mission, we can help commanders at different echelons make smart decisions which not only protect resources, but they also maximize the potential for success of the mission,” Colonel Lanicci said. “Weather plays an important role every step of the way, from the time we start planning to the time we actually execute. Even as were executing, if something changes in real-time, we need to get that kind of information to the decision makers so that they can change their tactics on the fly.”

But overall, space weather provides something even more important to the troops in the field.

“The biggest benefit is situational awareness,” Colonel Cade said. “We provide products, services, warnings and forecasts that help the warfighter to prepare in case something happens so they can help mitigate against what problems may occur.”

To provide its outstanding services worldwide, Air Force Space Weather relies on many cutting-edge technologies and research developments.

“The space weather area is pretty new science-wise,” Colonel Cade said. “Some of the capabilities that we have right now are kind of first-generation science, kind of where the regular weather community was, say 40 or 50 years ago where they were just starting to bring in some of the newest available science. We are just to that stage now, so we really need to go out and leverage some of the newer capabilities to really improve what we are doing to provide better products and help the warfighter.”

It is this plan of gathering technology and research for continued success in the future that the Airmen at space weather are using today.

“We do a lot of interaction with the research community to go out and find some of the latest technology research that is available,” Colonel Cade said. “(In this way,) we can bring in and use that new technology, new research, new science to improve our operations and improve our forecasting and (ultimately) improve the products that we provide to the warfighter.

“As the Air Force and, I think as our nation as a whole, starts to become more and more reliant upon space systems for what we do, and to support every aspect of our life, space weather is going to become more and more important,” Colonel Cade added.

Through their wide variety of technological expertise, Airmen from space weather can also hone their talents to meet the specified needs on today’s battlefields.

“There is no one single factor that’s important for all weather operations,” Colonel Lanicci said. “It’s so situationally and mission dependent. For example, weather factors that would be important for a peacekeeping operation could be completely different than say a long-range strike mission … so what we do here is put together tailored products specifically for the situation, the location, the time of day and the time of year.”

While some people may question the true importance of space weather in today’s combat environment, to the Airmen who provide this unique mission, their importance seems obvious.

“I would liken it to a prizefighter trying to boxing with a blindfold on,” Colonel Lanicci said. “He might get lucky and he might hit the target. But chances are either he won’t hit it or somebody will hit him first. What we provide is a very specialized type of service. A lot of people … normally think of the folks that they see in the media on TV weather … But the decisions that need to be made on the battlefield, whether they be at the tactical level, at the Air Operations Center or at the national level, those decisions have very specific types of impacts and effects that not only terrestrial weather might have (on them) but the weather in space might have on satellite communications, (global positioning system) navigation or high-level reconnaissance missions.”

Despite the diversity of their programs or the multiple tiers of services they provide to the modern warfighter, the key to current success lies with their people.

“The mission of this agency has changed dramatically from when I was here 10 years ago,” Colonel Lanicci said. “But, what never ceases to amaze me (is) the dedication and the prowess and just the pride of workmanship and leadership that these people display on a day-to-day basis, whether they are here, at one of our operating locations or they are deployed into the theater. Our people are really our best asset, and they just really make me so proud.”

With his task complete, Sergeant Ybarra places the phone back on the receiver and returns to his computer.

As his monitor updates the real-time image of the sun on his monitor, the space weather noncommissioned officer returns to his solar vigil. As his eyes once again gaze steadily across the sun’s surface, he remains ready to respond, keeping the warfighter’s communication clear and protected from dangers he will never even know were there.

SpaceRef staff editor.