Sunrise to sunset: observatory looks to the sky

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Siuta B. Ika
  • 49th Wing Public Affairs
The sun, while it supplies life and energy for the people and plants that call the Earth home, also has the power to seriously disrupt humanity's way of life. Periodically, the sun releases massive quantities of solar matter and electromagnetic radiation into space, known as a coronal mass ejection, which can cause a geomagnetic storm that could potentially disrupt radio transmissions, damage satellites, and lead to long-lasting power outages.

To help Holloman AFB combat negative effects CMEs could have on the base's mission, the solar analysts of the Detachment 4, 2nd Weather Squadron Solar Observatory here monitor the sun and its activities daily.

"We analyze the sun for features that may affect communications systems, satellites, and aircraft that are flying in higher elevations," said Senior Airman Erin O'Connell, Det. 4, 2nd WS solar analyst. "Right now, the sun is very active and has been since early last year."

The sun is active, O'Connell said, because we are currently in the solar maximum or solar max, which is the period of greatest solar activity in the sun's solar cycle. During the solar max, large numbers of sunspots appear because the sun's magnetic field lines are the most distorted due to the magnetic field on the solar equator rotating at a slightly faster pace than at the solar poles.

"If you imagine a bell curve, we are ramping up to a solar max right now, so we're seeing a lot of flares and not only are they increasing in frequency, but the intensity of the flares are also increasing," said Master Sgt. Shane Siebert, Det. 4, 2nd WS detachment chief. "The solar max and solar min, or solar minimum, cycles through every 11 years. Our solar min was in 2010, so just to put it in perspective, from 2010 to 2011 we saw a 300 percent increase in solar activity. We can expect the sun to stay active for the next three years, and then slowly decline for the next eight leading back to the solar min."

Because solar activity can cause navigation systems anomalies, targeting systems errors, and disrupt the base's communication assets, the solar analysts monitor the sun from sunrise to sunset.

"We have a very complex telescope that views the sun and feeds information to all of our computer systems, which enables us to analyze the sun and look for the features that are important to military and civilian customers that are impacted by space," Siebert said. "As soon as we see those features, we compose a warning and send it to the Space Weather Prediction Center and the Space Weather Operations Center, and they disseminate the information to the decision makers and customers."

Because the effects of a solar flare can be felt on Earth in eight minutes, the solar analysts must send the warning out in two minutes.

"The telescope puts live images on the screen, and when an event-level flare (flare that is very intense and very large, that emits high energy particles into space) happens, the system sounds an alarm and that's when the two-minute warning comes into effect," O'Connell said. "The telescope images the sun in the light of Hydrogen-alpha. This wavelength allows us to really see the solar activity, basically as its happening. We also can image the sun in white light, which shows sunspots on the sun's surface or photosphere."

Even when they're not responding to event-level solar flares, the analysts still must monitor the sun's activity very closely.

"Over the course of the day, we issue messages to the space community every three hours to let them know what kind of activity is occurring on the sun," Siebert said. "In addition to this, the solar analysts also perform a sun spot drawing every day and forward that information to the Space Weather Prediction Center, so the forecasters can predict the likelihood of large flares."

Even in their own Air Force Specialty Code, the solar analysts have a very unique mission, Siebert said.

"We're all weather forecasters and in our career field there are 3,000 enlisted people, but in the solar community doing this job here, there are only 25 of us," he said. "This is a very unique mission because there are only five different Air Force sites across the world doing this mission. They're set up geographically in Australia, Italy, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and here, and there are usually always two observatories monitoring the sun at any given time."

With event-level flares occurring daily, the solar analysts' margin of error is ever decreasing.

"If we fail our two-minute warning, we set everyone else back," Siebert said. "A lot is riding on us to do the job correctly - $104 billion in DoD assets can be damaged. During the true solar max, which we're ramping into, the events could be happening several times an hour, so we'll get even busier."

Even with the increase in work load, Siebert is confident in the analysts' abilities.

"When I first got here, there wasn't a whole lot of activity going on," Siebert said. "There would be days when there weren't any flares. Now, we could face 20 flares a day, but we're ready to respond and provide that information so that the customers at Holloman and throughout the DoD can be aware of when there's going to be operational impacts to their missions."