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Solar forecasters plead for support

In a stroke of good timing, space weather officials came to Capitol Hill on Thursday to plead for more money for the agency in charge of forecasting geomagnetic storms and solar flares, such as the one that was hitting Earth even as they spoke.

AT A HOUSE subcommittee hearing on funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Environment Center — the country’s official source of space weather alerts and warnings — officials from the Air Force and NASA warned that cutting the center’s funds would jeopardize their own activities.

The hearing was scheduled before the recent solar activity that disrupted some communications systems.

Both the House and Senate have proposed reducing President Bush’s 2004 budget request for $8 million for NOAA’s forecasting arm, and the Senate has suggested shifting some of its core responsibilities to the Air Force and NASA.

Astronaut John Grunsfeld, chief scientist at NASA, said moving NOAA’s unique forecasting capabilities to the space agency could hurt ongoing space flight operations and research. Losing forecast data from the center “would be like living along a coastal area without any hurricane forecasting capability,” he said.

Transferring the operations would be time-consuming and costly, said Col. Charles Benson, the Air Force Weather Agency commander.

The chairman of the House Science subcommittee in charge of environment and technology agreed.

“It’s neither within the mandate nor the mission of the Air Force or NASA to take on these crucial responsibilities,” said Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich.

Benson cautioned that losing the Space Environment Center would immediately and severely affect military operations, including satellite and radio communications and high-altitude flight.

In its spending bill covering the agency, the House has proposed a 2004 funding level equal to this year’s: $5.2 million, about 35 percent below Bush’s request. The Senate has proposed eliminating the center’s funding altogether.

Ernest Hildner, director of the space environment center, said visits to its Web site had spiked enormously since attention has turned to the solar flares.

If current spending levels are not maintained, Hildner said, “NOAA would cease to issue official U.S. space weather alerts, warnings and forecasts, information that is currently not provided by any other source.”

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