|Air Force Space Weather Troops|
|A Sunny Outlook|
Huge dark clouds rolled toward the cliffs of Punta Borinquen. One of the most beautiful spots on the northwest coast of Puerto Rico, the rock faces overlook the azure Caribbean Sea.
Black and menacing, the clouds cast a gray pall over the tropical isle’s multicolor landscape. The wind before the storm rustled the coconut palms and put a slight chill in the moist, warm air.
The front bore down on the Air Force’s Ramey Solar Observatory. The site, four small buildings on 77 acres of prime real estate, sits atop a 180-foot cliff. Located just north of the city of Aguadilla, it provides a grand view of the surrounding land, sea and sky.
“We gotta hurry and start securing things,” Staff Sgt. Susan Dickson said. The solar analyst is one of nine Detachment 3, 55th Space Weather Squadron airmen who run the site.
The clouds were still 20 minutes away. But Dickson and Staff Sgt. Israel Cruz-Colon knew what was coming. They were eating lunch at a picnic table at the site’s “bohio” — a hut with no walls. And as they wolfed down their rice, beans and barbecued chicken, they tossed scraps to their resident mouse catcher, a stray cat named Ensa. The breeze blew away their napkins.
Dickson said the “Monster of Mayaguez” was coming. That’s the name airmen give the storms that sometimes roll in from the city of Mayaguez, to the south.
When that happens, solar analyst Cruz-Colon said, they rush to batten down the site — and the 10-inch optical telescope pointed at the sun that’s the heart of its operation.
“Once the clouds roll in, they block out the sun. If we can’t see the sun, we can’t do our job,” he said.
They logged all the last-minute solar information they could, then secured the telescope.
“All we can do is sit back and ride it out,” Dickson said.
The storm dumped buckets of rain. Thunder cracked in the distance, and lightning danced in the sky. But the monster wasn’t so tough this time. It vented its full fury in less than a half hour. As quickly as it came, the storm was gone.
Most days are sunny. That’s why the observatory is in Puerto Rico — a clear blue sky is the norm there.
It’s perfect for sun watching.
Eyes on the sun
Ramey airmen are part of a global network that keeps an eye on the solar show the sun puts on each day.
The telescope and computer gear are used to monitor the sun’s photosphere and map sunspots. And check its chromosphere for solar flares and their intensity.
But the detachment’s main job is to provide real-time reports of solar flares to a host of government agencies. The United States also shares this data with other countries.
Capt. Frank Tersigni, the Ramey detachment commander, said they all use it to keep their different systems out of harm’s way. So reporting solar flares is vital.
Each flare is a gigantic release of magnetic stresses on the sun’s atmosphere. Like an exploding volcano, flares emit an incredible amount of energy in a host of forms.
“Imagine — one second of solar energy output would be enough to power the entire United States for a million years,” he said. The
power of 2 billion atomic bombs going off at once.
Mind boggling? You bet. So imagine what even a fraction of that energy can cause.
If a flare erupts, the released energy — both as electromagnetic waves moving at the speed of light and high-energy particles — speeds toward the Earth. Some of these may smack into the Earth’s “protective shield” — the magnetosphere.
This invisible shield acts like a ship’s bow as the Earth revolves around the sun. It pushes most of the particles around and away from the planet. Some, however, still manage to reach the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Some come in through gaps in the shield above the Earth’s poles — called polar cusps. That causes the auroras borealis and australis, or Northern and Southern Lights. Others sneak back toward Earth through the gap at the end of the magnetosphere, the magneto tail.
“When that happens, it can cause problems to a host of technologies,” Tersigni said.
Solar flares may cause satellites, spacecraft, aircraft and ocean-going crafts to experience communications and direction control problems. May cause radio, radar and global positioning, and guidance and navigation systems to go on the blink. Short-circuit sensors.
Even expose astronauts on the space shuttle to dangerous or lethal doses of radiation.
Electromagnetic interference from solar flares may cause aircraft or guided munitions to stray off course by causing their sensors to go haywire. Tiny solar particles can disrupt star navigation systems on satellites. Even “drag” a satellite out of orbit.
“You can see that solar flares can have serious effects on military operations,” Tersigni said. While serving as a weather officer in Southwest Asia, he saw that first hand.
“We always monitored solar activity during missions. Because no matter what weapon system we used, we wanted to know if it was the failed equipment or the sun causing interference.”
Knowing when flares happen — and if their energy will hit Earth — helps lessen their impact. Energy from flares can reach the Earth in minutes, or over a period of days. Either way, knowing when they’ll arrive allows for some kind of warning.
Master Sgt. Bob Silvernail, detachment chief of operations and a solar analyst, said knowing what’s coming and when allows the military to change operations so solar energy bursts won’t have such an impact. And all fixes to overcome solar flare interference aren’t rocket science.
“It could be as simple as having airmen change a radio frequency to suit the location and environment they’re in, based on the data they get from us,” he said.
A vital role
That makes each bit of information the Ramey crew gathers priceless. But they aren’t alone. Sun watching goes on around the clock. The Ramey observatory is one of six Air Force sites worldwide. And like Ramey, some sites have optical telescopes. Others use all-weather radio telescopes. They’re part of the space weather squadron, based at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo., which is part of the Air Force Weather Agency at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.
There’s always one or more sites open for business, Silvernail said.
By doing their day-to-day job, the Ramey airmen continue a tradition of sun watching. One started by the Italian mathematician Galileo –– one of the first to use a telescope to study sunspots in the early 1600s.
But the solar analysts are moving on from their traditional weather roots.
“We don’t necessarily consider Earth’s atmosphere separate from space,” Tersigni said. “Everything’s connected.”
Instead of forecasting the Earth’s weather, they try to find the pieces that will one day allow for accurate solar forecasts. That takes a space weather troop, of which there are only a few dozen actively serving at Air Force observatories. It’s a unique breed of weather troop.
“It’s a new job. And it’s cool,” Silvernail said. “We get to see things other human beings don’t see. Once you’re in, you don’t want to leave.”
Space weather, however, is a new science. And not a very exact one.
“We’re trying to get to the point where we can forecast solar activity like we forecast weather on the Earth. But we’re not doing that yet,” Silvernail said.
In the meantime, with each bit of data, “the Ph.D’s will get closer” to finding a way to make solar forecasts, he said. And the information observatories are collecting is adding up. Most of the history is only as old as the space program.
However, part of the data dates back to the early 1600s. It’s called sunspot tracing, which the Ramey crew has continued. The sun’s image goes through the telescope, passes through a series of filters and projects on a white-light table. Sunspots appear as dark spots.
Then analysts — like Galileo before them — trace sunspots with a pencil onto sheets of paper.
Sunspot mapping is important. During the nine to 12 years of varying sunspot activity, called a solar cycle, sun watchers have noticed sunspots tend to migrate toward the sun’s equator the more there are.
And there seems to be, Tersigni said, a strong link between the grouping of sunspots and the occurrence of solar flares. But there’s no predictable model for sun watchers to use in creating solar forecasts as yet.
Still, there’s great interest in predicting when flares will occur and how large they’ll be. So collecting sunspot drawings may one day lead to a forecast model that will make predicting solar weather more exact.
Observatory crews don’t do space weather forecasts. Airmen at Offutt do that. But the locals do get to put in their two-cents worth.
“We’re allowed to send our thoughts on what might be occurring in a region of the sun,” Dickson said. “We can say certain regions are ‘brightening’ up and that we think a solar flare may occur. Because we’re the ones seeing the real-time images on our computers.”
By studying all the imagery from the sun and sunspot drawings, forecasters get a pretty good idea of what region might likely erupt.
“Right now we might think a good, solid, three-day to five-day forecast is unattainable,” Tersigni said. “But we’re working toward that.”
That might seem like a sunny outlook, but the data Air Force solar observatories collect will help. And one day that will give military leaders one more weapon to add to their arsenal.
But the Ramey crew isn’t much concerned with that. They’re at the street level. The data they gather helps prevent solar interference from disrupting military and civilian operations. That’ll keep someone safe and help solar weather forecasting become a more predictable science.
And to the casual observer, the Ramey crew — tucked away on its tiny hideaway on its little island in the sun — doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on the Air Force’s “big picture.”
“Because of what the Air Force does in wartime and the information it needs to do its mission,” she said, “it makes us — and our job — very important.
Article by Master Sgt. Louis A. Arana-Barradas, Published in Airman's