This is an informal estimate of how well we are prepared for the major space weather events of the next solar activity cycle which begins in 2007, reaches a maximum in 2011 and declines to a minimum in 2017.

The seven quantities, below, are individually assessed on a rough 4-point scale (Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent), and combined by averaging to determine our over-all preparedness.

The following assessment was made in May, 2005.

Education - There has been some attempt by NASA to provide classroom education in space weather topics - mostly about solar activity and aurora. Most of these efforts have been relatively effective in making large numbers of students aware of space weather issues. Millions of students participate in the NASA 'Sun-Earth Day' which deals with how solar storms affect Earth. Public education appears to be in similar shape, with the news media regularly providing front-page reporting on ongoing space weather events, and highlighting in the same breath their potential for causing blackouts and other disruptions. The number of 'hits' to pages with the following space weather topics were determined by using GOOGLE:

Solar storms.... 53,000,Solar flares...191,000, Coronal Mass Ejections (CME) ... 64,000, Aurora Borealis ... 446,000. As a comparison, we used the term 'Creationism' which garnered 822,000 pages, and 'UFO' which accounted for 2.4 million pages. We assess the education quantity as Fair.

Electrical Power - The North American power grid continues to operate on declining margins, and with only modest infrastructure back up for its critical transformers. There have been three major blackouts in the last 10 years affecting 50 million people. Replacement parts for the largest transformers at 500 - 700 kiloVolts require long lead times of over 12 months, and are only supplied by foreign companies. The current stockpile for these critical items is fewer than the number of likely failures during the most severe space weather storms of the last 150 years. However, although there have been several near-blackouts of portions of the US electrical grid by space weather events since 1998, operators have been able to avoid these blackouts so far. In the next 5 years, the construction of new power plants will continue to fall behind the domestic need for power, and margins will decline to between 1 and 5% in most areas. Space weather forecasting techniques are slowly being adopted, but the chief data resource, the NASA ACE satellite, is operating beyond its mission lifetime and will be decommissioned by 2007, leaving the US power grid without any advanced warning of impending space weather storms. This quantity is assessed to be Poor.

Satellites - Even during the most severe storms of the previous sunspot cycle (ca 1996-2005), out of the 936 operating satellites there were only a few dozen severe anomalies that could have compromised the performance of these satellites. All satellites continue to experience a steady 2 - 5% decline each year in solar power due to cosmic ray degradation. More rapid declines have been caused by Solar Proton Events, but overall the loss of satellite operations in the near term has been minimal or entirely absent. Nevertheless, many satellites are operating beyond their planned 10-year lifetimes and are only being replaced at a modest rate, so we expect some service declines to occur in transponder availability in the years to come. Technological improvements in solar panel designs and with onboard SEU compensation software continue to move satellite operations in the low-impact direction. We assess this quantity as Excellent.

Astronaut Health - The most severe solar flares so far have only increased the annual dosages for astronauts by a slight amount over what we receive on the ground. None of these exposures has resulted in any signs of radiation sickness, so long as the astronauts were inside their spacecraft or the International Space Station. We assess this quantity as Excellent.

Airline Travel - Airlines that fly polar routes are the most susceptible to space weather events, particularly solar flares. Congressional testimony in 2003 by a representative of United Airlines indicates that the Industry is well aware of radiation risks. They do take precautions to minimize exposure to passengers and flight crews by altering flight plans as needed, even though there are significant costs associated with such changes. However, airline crew unions in North America continue to encounter difficulty in having flight crews regarded as 'radiation workers' subject to the same OSHA guidelines as nuclear power plant operators who experience the same or similar radiation levels. This includes lack of support for the regular wearing of dosimetry badges, now common among similar crews in Europe. We assess this quantity as Good.

Research - Huge advances in understanding the sun-earth system have been made in the last 10 years, thanks to satellites capable of providing critical data in near real-time during actual storm events. These satellites are now quite old and about to be retired by NASA. New satellites will come online by 2008 which will continue our ability to monitor the sun for potentially harmful storms. This area of research at NASA has, however, experienced cutbacks in funding due to the new Mission to Mars initiative, despite the fact that space weather radiation events will be the most harmful environmental hazard for space travel. Fewer researchers are working in sun-earth system research areas on a long-term basis due to funding cutbacks. We assess this quantity as Fair.

 

Forecasting - The premier resource for space weather forecasting, the NOAA Space Environment Center in Boulder Colorado, has experienced frequent budget cuts, and has been repeatedly in danger of being closed entirely (i.e 1998 and 2003). Forecasting methods for the most severe flares and Solar Proton Events are not better than 50/50 for a 24-hour period, so that forecasters can not reliably predict even the most extreme solar flares capable of harming astronauts and damaging satellites. We still can't use physical principles and physics-based computer models to anticipate exactly what a particular flare or CME will do, or how they are manufactured by the sun. Some researchers consider modern space weather forecasting to be where terrestrial weather forecasting was over 100 years ago. There has been little progress in this problem in a decade due to its chronic under-funding. CMEs and the consequent geomagnetic storms can be anticipated days in advance thanks to the availability of the ACE and SoHo satellites, which are critical in helping electrical power managers mitigate against geomagnetic storms. These satellites are, however, very old and about to be retired with no direct replacement of the ACE functions planned in the future. We assess this quantity as Poor.

 

The overall Preparedness Index is therefore (2 + 1 + 4 + 4 + 3 + 2+ 1)/7 = 17/7 = 2.4 or Fair.