VANDENBERG SPACE FORCE BASE, Calif. --
A small team of space weather experts at the Combined Space Operations Center here makes a significant impact by providing space weather predictions for the DoD, international allies, and commercial partners.
Assigned to the Combined Force Space Component Command’s (CFSCC) 614th Combat Training Squadron, the flight of seven enlisted personnel and one officer maintains a 24-hour watch for space weather, seven days a week.
"Space weather must be factored into any calculation we make, particularly with regards to using our space-based capabilities," said Maj. Gen. DeAnna Burt, CFSCC commander, responsible for ensuring combat-relevant space capabilities are reliably delivered to combatant commanders, coalition partners, the Joint Force, and the nation. “Accurate predictions and time to maneuver are what leaders need to make good decisions, and our amazing space weather flight here provides that to the CFSCC and a whole host of other customers.”
Using space weather data gleaned from both classified and unclassified information platforms, fed by sensors located worldwide and in space, the 614th Space Weather Flight produces timely reports regarding solar activity for its users.
“We communicate with other organizations, specifically the 2nd Weather Squadron and the 557th Weather Wing, both located at Offutt Air Force Base, NE, to gather information,” said Master Sgt. Christopher Gates, flight chief for the 614th Space Weather Flight and 23-year veteran of Air Force weather. “We also communicate with space agencies from our partner nations in order to make sure their assets are protected as well.”
Daily space weather briefings produced by the 614th Space Weather Flight are distributed to NATO partners and commercial partners through the CFSCC’s Commercial Integration Cell, in addition to the DoD, including U.S. Space Command and units under the U.S. Space Force.
“The most rewarding part of this job is using our understanding of how the sun’s energy output can change the space environment we operate in to help people make better decisions,” said Capt. Matthew Marlow, flight commander for 614th Space Weather Flight. “Because changes in the sun’s output drive space weather, space operators need to be aware and adjust as needed.”
One of the main areas the weather flight assists with is determining whether malfunctions on satellites are caused by space weather or by other causes. An example of this occurred in April 2019, during an investigation into the sudden failure of an Intelsat 29e geostationary relay station. Following the CFSCC's Commercial Integration Cell request to assess the space environment during the outage, the weather flight poured through its data. It helped determine that an electrostatic discharge event related to solar weather activity likely led to the equipment failure.
According to the space weather experts here, the adverse effects of space weather activity on operations and equipment are only expected to increase over the next couple of years as we reach what is known as a “solar maximum.”
“The sun goes through 11-year cycles of activity, consisting of a four-year increase in activity from solar minimum to solar maximum, and then slowly declines back to the next solar minimum,” said Gates. “We reached our solar minimum approximately a year ago, so we are slowly ramping back up to an increase in solar activity that we expect to peak in late 2024 or early 2025. As the level of solar activity increases, the need to keep operators and leadership informed will only increase in importance.”
After talking with the space weather experts here, another thing is clear: space weather is complicated and difficult to predict. Therefore, as the global space mission grows, so will its space weather technicians' training and necessary expertise.
Currently, weather trainees go through a nine-month-long course focused on terrestrial weather, which only briefly touches upon space weather. If an Airman is later assigned to a space weather unit, they must perform on-the-job training to become proficient at predicting space weather.
Gates and fellow flight member Tech. Sgt. Marcos Coronel recently completed a series of planning events with their counterparts at the DoD weather schoolhouse at Keesler Air Force Base, MS, on creating a much-needed dedicated space-weather course. This roughly three-week course will provide weather Airmen assigned to a unit like the 614th Space Weather Flight an in-depth space weather primer before arriving at their new organization.
“Space weather is something that has been a bit overlooked over the years, but now with space being such a vital part of protecting our collective safety and security, the interest in it has increased,” said Gates. “We are the only unit that gets to work directly with space operators and speak directly to leaders up to the four-star level about how space weather affects the mission on a day-to-day basis, so that’s pretty special.”