Congress Advances FY2017 Appropriations, Space Weather Legislation

Congress Advances FY2017 Appropriations, Space Weather Legislation

Congress is making progress on passing the final FY2017 omnibus appropriations bill as well as legislation to clarify federal responsibilities for space weather research and forecasting.

Today, the House passed the appropriations bill, H.R. 244, by a vote of 309-118.   It combines 11 of the 12 regular FY2017 appropriations bills, including the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill that funds NASA and NOAA (the 12th, Military Construction/Veterans Affairs, passed last year).  The bill provides $19.65 billion for NASA and $1.979 billion for NOAA satellite acquisition.   The Senate is expected to vote on it tomorrow.  The President must sign it into law by midnight Friday to avoid a government shutdown.

President Trump tweeted yesterday that  “Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess.”   He probably meant October, the beginning of the next fiscal year (FY2018).  Thus he is expected to sign this bill, which funds the government through the end of FY2017 on September 30. 

The government has been operating on a series of Continuing Resolutions since FY2017 began on October 1, 2016, so the government is already 7 months into the fiscal year.  Many of the members who spoke during debate on the bill today lamented the delay.

President Trump is scheduled to send his complete FY2018 budget request to Congress on May 15.  He submitted a “budget blueprint” or “skinny budget” in March, but Congress has been waiting for the details.  Congress will have between then and September 30 to craft a bill for the upcoming fiscal year.  Much can happen between now and then so it remains to be seen whether the President continues to describe a government shutdown as “good.”  The current focus is getting through the rest of FY2017 and the House vote today is a step forward in that direction.

Separately, the Senate passed the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act (S. 141) yesterday.  The original bill did not clear the 114th Congress and a new version was introduced this year by Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) and a set of bipartisan co-sponsors.  It was approved by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on March 30 and passed the Senate on May 2 by unanimous consent.  The bill focuses on policy and does not authorize funding. 

A major focus is interagency coordination and cooperation.  The bill directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and its National Science and Technology Council to serve a coordinating role “to improve the nation’s ability to prepare, avoid, mitigate, respond to, and recover from potentially devastating impacts of space weather events.”  The principle agencies involved in research and forecasting are NOAA, NASA, DOD and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Space weather is caused by particles emitted by the Sun that can damage satellites and ground-based infrastructure like the electric grid. Key satellites that monitor the Sun for such eruptions are located at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point about 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth.  The NASA-NOAA-Air Force Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) arrived there last year, joining two older spacecraft — NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), launched in 1997, and the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Solar and Heliospherics Observatory (SOHO), launched in 1996.  SOHO has a special type of telescope called a coronagraph (this one is named LASCO) that provides the first indication of an eruption.  The particles then fly past ACE and DSCOVR, which collect data about intensity and polarization. 

The bill directs NOAA, in cooperation with ESA, to maintain operations of LASCO as long as possible and prioritize the reception of LASCO data.  NOAA is then directed to work with NASA and DOD to develop options for additional capabilities to monitor the Sun and take into consideration “commercial solutions, prize authority, academic and international partnerships, microsatellites, ground-based instruments” and opportunities to deploy instruments as secondary payloads.  NOAA is also directed, in coordination with DOD, to develop requirements and plans for follow-on space-based observations.

NOAA is already at work on the last item.  Its FY2017 budget request proposed a new “space weather follow on” program under which it would build and launch two space weather satellites, the first of which would be in place before the end of DSCOVR’s design lifetime in 2022.  Only $2.5 million was requested to begin planning, but funding would ramp up quickly after that.  In the FY2017 omnibus appropriations, Congress doubled that funding to $5 million.

S. 141 also directs NASA to “seek to implement” missions identified in the most recent Decadal Survey on heliophysics from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and for the Academies to review a set of “benchmarks” for space weather metrics the bill requires to be established.  

The bill now goes to the House for consideration. Sen. Peters urged the House to act “swiftly … so we are well prepared to predict and avoid a possible worst case scenario space weather event.”

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