October 6, 2015 – Ninety-three million miles away from the Earth sits a fiery sphere of hot gas. It’s 332,946 times the mass of Earth and has surface temperatures reaching 9,932 degrees, which is capable of disrupting satellites, power grids and even pilots flying at high altitudes. The sun launches these attacks from its surface with a massive burst of gas and magnetic fields called a coronal mass ejection.
The Airmen at the Holloman Solar Observatory are the hub of monitoring volatile solar activity and training others to do so as well.
“The Air Force has three solar observatories,” said Master Sgt. Ronald Sherard, the chief of the Detachment 4, 2nd Weather Squadron. “We have one at Holloman, one in Learmonth, Australia and one in San Vito, Italy. Holloman is the focal point for the entire (Air Force) Solar Optical Observing Network around the world. Becoming an analyst with the 2nd Weather Squadron on the solar optical side means you will come to Holloman to receive training.”
Although few in number, the Air Force solar observatories play a critical role in keeping the Air Force way of life running. A single solar storm could disrupt the Air Force way of life.
“We monitor the sun for solar activity, and we report any activity that occurs,” said Staff Sgt. Erin O’Connell, a solar analyst with Det. 4, 2nd WS. “The information goes up to key decision makers who decide to deploy safeguard measures on satellites, power grids or to alert pilots in high-altitude aircraft.”
The frequency of solar flares varies from several a day, when the sun is particularly active, to less than one a week during quiet periods.
“The importance of watching the sun is that solar flares and any material that ejects off the sun can enter the atmosphere and affect Earth,” Sherard said.
Each solar flare produces streams of highly energetic particles that can present radiation hazards to spacecraft and astronauts among many other possibilities.
The Airmen have a wide range of impacts on both military and civilian organizations alike. Sending this information to both civilian and Defense Department entities allows for a more wide-spread analysis and real-world application of the provided information.
“We work jointly with civilian and DOD customers,” O’Connell said. “The civilian agency is the Space Weather Prediction Center (in Boulder, Colorado) and the military agency is the Space Weather Operations Center at the 2nd Weather Squadron, Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.”
Providing this information to both agencies allows for a more complete coverage in safeguarding measures and accurate research used for forecasting possible events.
“The agencies utilize the information in very different ways,” O’Connell said. “The DOD is all about protective and safeguarding measures. The civilian side is more about research and forecasting. With the information they compile about what we send out, the agencies are able to create a more complete picture and are able to produce more accurate forecasts for their customers.”
The benefits of the observatories extend from the earth-based infrastructure to space-based vehicles and their astronauts.
If a solar event is powerful enough, it can create a surface charge, or even a drag on a satellite or space vehicle, which can affect its operation and orbit.
“Solar activity can affect communication,” Sherard said. “It can degrade them and cut off contact. It also affects GPS coordinates. Being in the Air Force, a lot of our munitions are GPS-guided. If we have a lot of activity on the sun, that information needs to get to the decision makers immediately so they can make the decision that maybe today is not a good day to drop a GPS-guided munition.”
Both electronically and physically, many facets can suffer negative consequences from increased solar activity.
“Another aspect is high-altitude aircraft,” he said. “Since they are more susceptible to the effects of the sun, information needs to be relayed to them quickly as well. Also with the International Space Station, if there is a big enough event, they can take cover to avoid any harmful effects.”
Keeping the solar telescopes in perfect working order requires constant calibration and preventative maintenance.
“We take care of the solar telescope here, as well as the two other telescopes in Italy and Australia,” said Senior Airman Samuel Davis, an airfield systems maintenance apprentice with Det. 4, 2nd WS. “We are the depot-level maintenance, so all the parts come to us. Then, we repair them and send them out. We are also the mobile depot-maintenance team. So, when the other two telescopes have problems, we go there and help them get it back up.”
High-powered equipment, such as the solar telescope, requires a high amount of accuracy and attention to detail to ensure the operators are getting reliable readings and delivering accurate information.
Even the smallest of discrepancies in this equipment could have drastic and devastating effects on the people who count on the information gathered from the telescopes.
“Over time, circuitry changes ever so slightly, and that changes the signal quality all the way throughout the process,” Davis said. “Everything is amplified from one step to the next. So, you make sure it’s right at the beginning, and then it’s smooth through the whole system.”
All of this dedication and attention to detail is the reason why the Holloman Solar Observatory is the leader in both training and execution of their craft.
“I enjoy the job immensely,” O’Connell said. “We have limited timelines to report this important information. I like to think I perform well under pressure, and those situations are ones that you can get great satisfaction out of.”