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    Why The Sky Is Falling: Space Weather Communications
    By Alex "Sandy" Antunes | June 11th 2010 04:41 PM | 4 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    GPS will die, sending airplanes crashing and sinking boats.  Cell phones will fail, stranding travelers and resulting in people in remote areas dying due to exposure.  Worse of all, our TV may go out for a few hours.

    These are some of the doomsday scenarios prophecied in the current "Chicken Little" coverage of space weather, as the sun ramps up towards Solar Maximum during the same decade that our society has become perilously dependent on advanced technology.

    So where's the science?  The science is standing behind Chicken Little, simultaneously crying "pay attention to us" and "stop overselling us, you media hacks!"

    A real scientist (Hi Angelos!) speaks accurately about science.

    Well, as a scientist and media hack, I'm going to cover the keynote from this week's "Space Weather Enterprise Forum" at the National Press Club.  And you will walk away thinking, "damn, space weather is another nuanced issue."

    For an overview of the space weather issues from a science viewpoint, we can read  'As the Sun Awakens'  (NASA Keeps a Wary Eye on Space Weather):
    "The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity. At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms. The intersection of these two issues is what we're getting together to discuss."
    And we also find we are lagging in technology to keep informed, as /. notes in US Climate Satellite Capabilities in JeopardyThe United States is in danger of losing its ability to monitor key climate variables from satellites, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

    But I want to get to the real meat of it.  People-- and the media.  Science is just a method and a body of knowledge.  It's politics and policy that-- whether based on science or not-- changes the world.

    And Jay Reich was just the man to talk about it.  He's the Deputy Chief of Staff at the US Department of Commerce, and spoke to the mixed crowd of scientists and policy makers on the real challenge of science-- Communications.  Here's what he had to say.

    For starters, "we want to be and are dependent on science.  [The] Problems with science:
    1. it's rigorous
    2. it's slow
    3. it's based on data
    4. it's based on challenging and peer review
    5. it changes as new information comes in.
    [These are also its strengths.]  In political [situations] this is a problem.

    "Is the sky falling?"

    "if you do scare me, what can I do?"

    "How many times can you warn me before I become inured?"

    He emphasized communication skills are needed, especially from scientists to the public.

    His personal take on missteps within the 'climate debate' is that "the scientists [thought they] could also be the translators, and move to policy advisors."  "Getting out of that science lane made them vunerable."

    He closed with "This administration is committed to science... [but that's rather glib] But the science isn't always precise on when it can take us, or how to rally the support to get us from here to the future."

    He also noted that, for disasters in general, "our technical capacities have outstripped our communications abilities", and "the scientific community is in denial about there being a communications challenge."

    In short, it's not the message, it's the medium.


    Tuesdays at The Satellite Diaries and Friday at The Daytime Astronomer (twitter @skyday)


    Have you taken the AETD mini-course on Space Weather? It's awfully good. If you'd like the slides, drop me a note offline.

    The basic issue with space weather right now is that we're fine with geostationary weather satellites, but they're prone to SEUs when there's a CME. The LEO weather satellites (DMSP and POES) are getting old, and NPOESS, which was supposed to replace them, got canceled for being way over budget. Now NASA is working to get NPP into orbit and follow it with JPSS birds based on the NPP architecture. But we're at least 18 months away from NPP launch.

    If the Sun gets really squirrely between now and NPPs commissioning, we've got the European MeteoSats to back us up, so we'll still have LEO coverage. So the sky is *not* falling and we will have both GEO and LEO weather satellite coverage.

    If we lose the GPS birds (very unlikely, since they're in 12 hour orbits -- not 24 -- and well inside the magnetosheath) we can still do flight dynamics the old fashioned way, tracking with C-band radar and generating ephemerides out of FDF.

    Satellite damage is just one category, and perhaps not the most severe.  The bigger problem is less hardware and more communications.  Specifically, solar events juice up the ionosphere and disrupt signals from geosync to ground.  It also messes up radio and radar.  So you get outages.

    It's generally accepted that most satellites are tough enough to weather solar events, and there are enough dups for networks like GPS that we won't have long-term loses.  The power industry is worried about induced voltages on the ground from solar events that can knock out a grid (e.g. the oft-cited 1989 Ontario blackout), and temporary outages of GPS, cell, and radar for periods of hours during solar events.

    It's the latter set that will impact us on Earth, I suspect.  But again, as we're dealing with predictions and probabilities, it's hard to convey accurately-- kind of like weather forecasts a half decade ago, where you want to balance too many  tornado warnings with the risk of missing the ones that actually will hit.

    Just to complicate things, our primary warning system is ACE, which sits at the L1 point between Earth and Sun and gives us minutes to hours notice that a solar event is about to hit.  But ACE is at the end of its life, and its replacement, DCOVER, isn't due up until 2013.

    Specifically, solar events juice up the ionosphere and disrupt signals from geosync to ground.

    I just don't think that's enough of a problem to worry about. With CCSDS packet format and Reed-Solomon encoding, the S-band transmissions from the GOES satellites to the NOAA CDAs are pretty robust. I can't speak for the commercial comm-sats, but I think they're all using CCSDS and Reed-Solomon too.

    The power outages are a real problem, especially at higher latitudes. There are new, ultra-fast "valves" that can cut off parts of the grid so you don't get catastrophic cascades of failures, but I don't know how well those have been fielded.

    With SDO in orbit now, I think the dependence on ACE is going away.

    Sadly, SDO isn't ACE.  Ignoring sensor differences, SDO is only 36K up, not 1,256K up, so we don't get the early warning ACE provides.  We need an L1 monitor.

    Your scenarios about compensating so NOAA satellites can transmit data down are reasonable, but the bulk of space weather concerns are not about NOAA or NASA satellites.  Concerns are primarily about impact on civilian real-time services, particularly cellular and GPS (both of which are heavily disrupted by ionospheric disturbance).  And, to a lesser degree, radar and radio (which at long distances are affected by the condition of the ionosphere).

    And, almost humorously, the TV industry is worried too.  The pay-per-view people were mentioned last year as being annoyed that space weather events might disrupt pay-per-view or other services.

    My guess is that, much like Y2K, the industry will work hard to preemptively avoid these problems, and they will be so  successful that later people will say "since nothing bad happened, obviously they wasted all this money preparing for it" when in reality, it was the preparations which resulted in nothing happening.  Just Cassandra-ing here.