Bipartisan Senate Bill Clarifies Space Weather Responsibilities, Promotes Research – UPDATE 2

Bipartisan Senate Bill Clarifies Space Weather Responsibilities, Promotes Research – UPDATE 2

Three Senators introduced legislation yesterday to clarify federal agency responsibilities for space weather research and forecasting.  Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced S. 2817, which allocates specific roles to NOAA, DOD, NASA, NSF and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  NOAA, for example, is directed to “immediately begin planning” to ensure there is no gap in solar observations.  The bill focuses on policy and does not authorize any funding. [UPDATE:  The Senate Commerce committee announced this afternoon that it will mark up the bill on Wednesday, April 27.] [UPDATE 2: The bill was ordered favorably reported from committee.]

Space weather — the result of particles emitted by the Sun interacting with Earth’s atmosphere and potentially damaging satellites and ground-based infrastructure like the electric grid — is of growing concern.   A 2008 report from the National Research Council raised awareness of the societal and economic impacts of space weather.  NASA has studied solar and space physics, the underlying science behind space weather, for decades as has the European Space Agency (ESA).  Satellites positioned at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point now give warnings of solar eruptions.  NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, CO issues forecasts and alerts when damaging events are expected.

NASA’s veteran Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) and ESA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) were joined by the NOAA-NASA-Air Force Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) last year.  ACE was launched in 1997 and SOHO in 1995.  NASA provided three of SOHO’s 12 instruments and operates the spacecraft.  SOHO has a type of telescope called a coronagraph that provides the first indication of an eruption on the Sun.  The particles then fly past ACE and DSCOVR, which collect data about intensity and polarization that in turn allow SWPC to make its forecasts.

Last year in its FY2016 budget request, the White House proposed that NASA be responsible for all non-military satellite earth observations, with NOAA responsible only for weather satellites, including space weather.  NOAA requested $2.5 million to begin planning for the next space weather satellite.  Congress agreed with the assignment of responsibilities, but approved only half the funding.  The FY2017 request is also $2.5 million.

In October 2015, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued a National Space Weather Strategy and National Space Weather Action Plan.  They set six strategic goals to reduce the nation’s vulnerability to space weather.

Some of the OSTP goals, such as establishing benchmarks for space weather events, are contained in the new legislation. the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act.   The bill would clarify the roles and responsibilities of federal agencies for understanding, predicting and forecasting space weather:

  • NOAA and DOD would provide operational space weather forecasts;
  • NASA and NSF would conduct basic heliophysics research, develop next generation technologies, and transfer findings, data and models to operational forecasters;
  • NOAA would immediately begin planning for back-up solar observations to prevent a single point of failure in the current satellite fleet (SOHO’s age is of particular concern);
  • the four agencies would begin planning for next-generation observations and science missions;
  • the agencies would develop space weather benchmarks to characterize the nature, frequency, and intensity of expected space weather events; and
  • the Department of Homeland Security would assess the vulnerability of critical infrastructure to space weather events.

The bill has other provisions to foster greater interagency cooperation, multidisciplinary research, and partnerships with international, commercial and academic organizations.   It also directs NASA to “seek to implement” missions identified in the most recent NRC Decadal Survey for Solar and Space Physics.

Dan Baker, Director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado-Boulder, chaired that Decadal Survey and praised the legislation in a press release issued by the Senators:  “I believe this legislation will be instrumental in helping the nation achieve the kind of operational space weather system that we’ve long needed.”   The CEO and Executive Director of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), Christine McEntee, also supports the bill, saying AGU applauds “the bill’s intent to further scientifically informed action towards disaster preparation, mitigation, response, and recovery.”

The bill was referred to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which announced on April 21 that it will mark up the bill on April 27 at 10:00 am ET (along with several other bills and pending nominations).   All three sponsors of the legislation are members of the committee and of its Space, Science, and Competitiveness Subcommittee.  Peters is the ranking member (top Democrat) on that subcommittee.

Update:  This article was updated at 2:20 pm ET on April 21 to reflect the Senate Commerce Committee’s announcement that it will mark up the bill next week.

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