HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M --
Editor’s note: This is the first in a four part series of articles on the solar observatory.
Just as local weather flights provide the base command post notifications and alerts of heat stress, thunderstorms, or high winds, the Holloman Air Force Base Solar Observatory has provided Department of Defense agencies similar notifications.
Holloman is one of five locations around the world providing 24/7 solar activity surveillance.
Solar analysts work from sunrise to sunset and pick up or hand off analysis duties between the other locations around the world. Those other site locations include Learmonth, Australia (Det. 1); Sagamore Hill, Massachusetts (Det. 2); Kaena Point, Hawaii (Det. 5) and a contractor operated site in San Vito, Italy.
All the observatories, along with the 2d Weather Squadron’s Space Weather Operation Center located at Offutt AFB, Nebraska, continuously support DoD decision makers, the intelligence community and space operators. They do this by continuously providing timely, accurate and relevant information on solar activity.
“What makes Holloman different from the other Solar Observing Optical Network sites is that we also provide training to new forecasters and maintainers as well as provide maintenance support to other sites,” said Staff Sgt. Bradley Douglas, 2d WS, Detachment 4, SOON Maintenance Centralized Repair Activity technician.
The SOON telescope views the sun in a specific wavelength of light, called Hydrogen-Alpha, which allows analysts to look through the sun’s atmosphere and see features on its surface.
“The mission here is to protect assets in space and across the world,” Douglas said. “We observe for any solar activity; we then provide that information to the Space Weather Operations Center. The Space WOC then sends warnings and advisories to operators within minutes, so they’re able to make sound decisions.”
Working under pressure is something forecasters and operators are trained and expected deal with on a regular basis.
In just two minutes, operators have to up-channel routine or event findings to geophysical and solar activity forecasters who then push additional findings within six minutes to DoD space weather users, such as Air Force Space Command, Joint Space Operations Center, NORAD, and Joint Force, in addition, to civilian customers such as NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration.
“When solar flares occur and hit escape velocity, the telescope detects the energy fluctuation and release and allows the analyst to measure and categorize the event,” said John Pietrzak, 2d WS, Det. 4, physical scientist. “Depending on how big the solar activity is, it can become an event that we will track. We measure the particle movements over time to see how and where the flare is moving. Those measurements and predictions are then provided to space weather forecasters and then our DoD customers.”
A solar flare is an explosive release of radiation and highly charged particles from the sun’s surface which, if oriented in the right direction, can impact the earth. The energy and particles that push through space towards Earth can affect satellite operations, communications and targeting systems.
Mr. Pietrzak also described other solar events, such as geomagnetic storms and explained that analysts produce a sunspot analysis at least once daily using the white light projection mirror. Sunspots are arranged by groups, their magnetic polarity, size, maturity and the complexity of the magnetic field around them. These groupings help predict future activity on the sun.
“Most of the time, the data we give provides the big picture, enabling the Space WOC and Space Weather Prediction Center to determine exactly what they need to do next in order to alleviate any problems,” Pietrzak said.
Providing such information allows agencies to provide space weather notifications and alerts in a timely manner.
“We’re here to provide situational awareness for the warfighter, so they can make the best decisions,” Douglas said. “We want to guarantee damage prevention to equipment and get the mission done.”