- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2003

A gigantic blast of scorching gas from the sun crashed into the Earth’s magnetic field yesterday. While static touched a few television programs, larger disruptions were averted, thanks to the advanced forecast of the flare supplied by the Space Environment Center (SEC).

The SEC forecast yesterday’s storm almost a full day before it hit. That alert allowed power-grid operators to prepare for potential disruptions; communications satellites to shut down nonessential functions; and astronauts aboard the International Space Station to take shelter. That is the SEC’s mission — to monitor the sun’s weather and issue forecasts and alerts about potentially disruptive solar events.

However, the SEC might not be making such forecasts in the future, thanks to shortsighted cuts in the Commerce, Justice and State (CJS) appropriations bill currently being considered by Congress. The administration requested $8 million for the SEC (which, as a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, is funded through the Commerce Department), but the House bill allocates the SEC the same $5.2 million in funding it received last year. The Senate bill zeroed SEC funding out, with the recommendation that either NASA or the Air Force assume those duties.

As a consequence, the House Science Committee is holding a hearing today to investigate the funding of the SEC and the future of space weather forecasting. Some system must remain, since solar weather is as constant, and almost as unpredictable, as the weather on the Earth. Anticipating solar storms is critical, since they can disrupt all sorts of space-dependent communications, ranging from cell phone conversations to airline navigation. A reduction in space weather forecasting could carry an enormous cost, since the commercial satellite industry had revenues of about $90 billion last year.

The SEC is the only organization designed to provide the public information about space weather(accessibleat https://www.sel.noaa.gov/), although NASA flies some SEC sensors on its research probes, and the Air Force Space Forecast Center tailors such information for the military. Regardless of the merits of the Senate’s stance, the proposed reorganization should be handled through an open debate instead of a line in an appropriations bill.

Budgets are tight this year. However, space-based communications systems are already vital to the public and private sectors. As NOAA’s administrator, Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, said of the SEC, “The early detection and forecast of geomagnetic storms is testament to the operational excellence and critical mission of this organization.” Congress should re-evaluate its decision to cut the SEC’s funding before the bill is sent to the president.

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