During one 24-hour period this past Mother’s Day weekend, three of the strongest flares in an extraordinarily active year for solar activity lit the far side of the sun. All three were X-class solar flares, the strongest the sun can send into the atmosphere.
An X-class solar flare is the strongest type of solar flare, but the series of eruptions earlier this year weren’t directly facing Earth. Still, solar analysts at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., Sagamore Hill, Mass.; Kaena Point, Hawaii; Learmonth, Australia and San Vito, Italy know stronger events could cause more serious consequences.
They watch the sun 24 hours a day for signs of solar activity that could disrupt communications or put astronauts and air crews at risk.
Last summer, a solar flare sparked northern lights in southern Canada and northern United States and potentially caused the worst blackout in India and Pakistan on record. Within two minutes, solar analysts at two of the five observatories in the Solar-Electro-Optical Network sent an alert to the Air Force Weather Agency’s Space Weather Operations Center at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.
“There are $250 billion in DOD assets relying on our information,” said Senior Master Sgt. Shane Siebert, chief of the Holloman Solar Observatory, Detachment 4, 2nd Weather Squadron.
“We’re the only source in DOD that provides 24/7 space weather observations.”
Sun observers expected 2013 to be the most active for solar weather in years as the sun reaches solar maximum, the peak of its 11-year weather cycle. The worst solar storm on record caused telegraph wires to short out and widespread fires in the United States and Europe in 1859, but considerably more is at risk with technological advances in the past two centuries.
The five observatories are strategically located so two sites will have analysts watching the sun at all times. Solar analysts like Staff Sgt. Erin O’Connell are on the lookout for flares and other activity on the sun that can disrupt communications and impact Air Force resources.
O’Connell can observe the size of a solar spot on a white light board. He also sends plain messages every three hours to the Air Force Weather Agency to provide an up-to-date picture of the sun and draws sunspots daily to help forecasters predict the possibility of large solar flares like the May 12 Mother’s Day event. The solar analysts’ number one responsibility is watching the sun for “event-level” solar flares.
Time is of the essence as the “last decision by our decision-makers needs to be made eight minutes out from the occurrence of the event,” O’Connell said.
“The high-energy particles coming from an event-level flare travel at the speed of light. It takes about eight minutes and 20 seconds for energy traveling at the speed of light coming from the sun. So we’re trying to make this decision to prepare for these high-energy particles that are going to be bombarding our atmosphere.
“We are the beginning step, and if we don’t make our two-minute timeline, we’re delaying that process, and the decision may not be made correctly. That pilot flying at 42,000 feet might get hit by some radiation. It’s not always that severe, but sometimes we have to think about the worst case scenario.”
Solar analysts at Sagamore Hill Radio Solar Observatory near Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., monitor the sun’s radio emissions with a radio telescope that uses three parabolic antennas of 28 feet, 8 feet and 3 feet in diameter, along with fixed semi-bicone and tracking antennas.
Space Weather Operations Center forecasters at Offutt AFB use messages and alerts from the five observatories to send out their own warnings. From the moment a solar event is measured on Earth, they have only a few minutes to send their alert.
In the past month, space operations forecasters sent hundreds of alerts from “probably thousands received” from solar analysts at the five observatories.
“Timeliness is the key thing,” said Capt. Thomas Wittman, flight commander of AFWA’s space weather operations center. “They have two minutes to get the alerts to us, and we have a number of minutes to send our alerts to the users in the field so they know what’s going on. (Solar analysts) give us an explanation of what they’re seeing on the sun and let us know if something looks important.
“Right now, the sun’s pretty quiet. It goes in cycles. It’s really hard to predict the future, but it’s been a very active year, especially in the last month.”
The day will come when solar analysts will no longer be needed on duty 24 hours a day at the observatories. The Improved Solar Observing Optical Network will eventually replace the Solar Observing Optical Network’s FMQ-7 telescope. The ISOON telescope, now located at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., will fully automate the solar analyst’s job.
“It will be the next generation of telescopes,” said John Pietrzak of the Holloman Solar Observatory. “It will be phenomenal with what it can do. Instead of us sending the forecasts, the forecasters will be able to read it on the spot because the information will be fed directly to them.”
Until ISOON is ready, solar analysts at the five sites will continue keeping their eyes, as well as antennas and radios, locked on the sun to protect Air Force communications and people from solar events like the Mother’s Day flare or whatever other weather solar maximum has to offer.
Written by Randy Roughton, Airman Magazine
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