NOAA / Space Weather Prediction Center

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RPC Overview

The space environment is of critical importance to our nation's technological assets, both to those situated in space as well as on the ground. We are becoming increasingly dependent upon orbiting satellites for applications such as communication networks, global positioning for ship and airline navigation, and monitoring the Earth for research and weather forecasting. Astronauts frequently travel into space on the shuttle, and teams of astronauts will soon be constructing the International Space Station. As our use of space increases, so must our ability to predict conditions in space, to safeguard human lives, and to protect the national investment in technological systems. In addition, many of our activities on the ground, including communication and electric power distribution, are affected strongly by changing conditions in space.

The near-Earth regions of space are driven by the Sun, and vary from minute-to-minute and day-to-day within the eleven-year cycle of solar activity. Like seasonal variations in the terrestrial weather, each stage of the solar cycle is characterized by its own set of conditions which affect different sectors of human and technological activity. Unlike terrestrial weather conditions which are monitored routinely at thousands of locations around the world, the conditions in space are monitored by only a handful of space-based and ground-based facilities. Space weather forecasters are required to specify and to predict conditions in space using a minimum of guidance from actual measurements. This extreme under-sampling of the diverse, coupled regions of space, extending all the way from the Sun to the Earth, demands that models be utilized to provide a continuous, quantitative assessment of the geospace environment.

The vision for future space environment services is to utilize a suite of real-time, data-driven, operational models that provide quantitative predictions of conditions throughout near-Earth space. The regions of interest include the Sun, the solar wind, the terrestrial magnetosphere, the ionosphere, and the upper atmosphere. Future operational models, together with the forecasters' expertise, will make possible an accurate and comprehensive set of products to better serve our nation's needs. This modeling capability will also enable the crucial training of personnel in preparation for the next peak in solar activity, using simulated conditions from previous disturbed periods.

Extensive research, modeling, and monitoring efforts directed at understanding the space environment have produced a broad spectrum of data and model resources. In the United States, various aspects of this effort have been funded by NASA, the National Science Foundation, NOAA, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Interior. Most recently, an interagency effort has been initiated to fund research targeted specifically toward understanding and predicting the space environment. This initiative, the National Space Weather Program, stems from the broad interest in space shared by commercial, educational, and governmental organizations. A primary goal of the National Space Weather Program is to focus and to build on our existing resources to produce quantitative predictive models of the space environment. Research relevant to the national Space Weather Program also benefits from strong international collaboration among scientists. In addition, SWPC Space Weather Operations, jointly operated with the USAF, also interacts directly with the international regional warning centers that operate under the International Space Environment Service.

The extensive model and data resources that exist and are being developed, together with our increasing need to monitor and to predict the space environment, present the imperative to transition these resources into operational use in a manner that most efficiently serves national needs. Model and data resources need to be critically evaluated through a competitive process that will insure their rapid and flexible utilization of the best and most useful. This transitioning from research to operations will be accomplished at the SWPC Rapid Prototyping Center, where staff will work directly with modelers, data providers, service providers and end users to insure an efficient environment to test and transition these products.

The ongoing direct interaction between the SWPC staff and the broad user community will influence future research and development efforts funded by various government agencies, and especially those funded through the National Space Weather Program. Because of the broad range of basic research questions that remain, guidance from the space weather operations centers and the end-user community will be required to identify the most immediate needs and the most promising opportunities. The continuous feedback between the users of space environment services and the model and data transitioning at SWPC will provide direction to the funding agencies and to the researchers they support.