Five Years in the Making, Space Weather Bill Finally Clears Congress

Five Years in the Making, Space Weather Bill Finally Clears Congress

Five years and many modifications later, Congress has finally passed bipartisan legislation to address how the U.S. government deals with threats posed by emissions from the Sun to critical elements of our infrastructure like the electric grid and satellites.  PROSWIFT, S. 881, now awaits signature by the President.

Senators Gary Peters (D-MI) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) introduced the first version of the bill in 2016 and a successor passed the Senate in 2017, but the House has been a stumbling block until now. Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) and Mo Brooks (R-AL) got it over the finish line today.

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee approved the most recent House version of the bill, Promoting Research and Observations of Space Weather to Improve the Forecasting of Tomorrow (PROSWIFT) Act, H.R. 5260, in January. Agreement was reached after the committee agreed to an amendment by Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) creating a commercial space weather data pilot program similar to the commercial weather data pilot program established by Congress in 2015.  NOAA declared that pilot program a success this summer.

The final bill, which passed the Senate by unanimous consent on July 27 and the House today by voice vote, retains the House title, PROSWIFT, but the Senate bill number, S. 881.

The legislation assigns roles and responsibilities to agencies involved in space weather research and forecasting and ensures coordination within the government to better predict severe space weather events and mitigate their impact. It also calls for coordination between the government and the non-governmental space weather community including academia, the commercial sector, and international partners.

Space weather refers to ejections from the Sun — Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) and solar wind — that can overload systems on Earth and in orbit that are critical to daily life, such as the electric grid or communications and navigation satellites.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) already provides a coordinating role for government agencies, but the legislation goes further and codifies it in law.

Lucas said in a statement today that the bill “represents a good faith effort by the House and Senate to provide a framework which will provide for better coordination across the federal government” in addressing space weather, which is specially timely given that we are about to enter a period of increased solar activity, which will create more space weather events.”

Indeed, NASA and NOAA held a press conference yesterday to announce the beginning of solar cycle 25.  Solar activity follows an 11-year year cycle from minimum to maximum and back to minimum again. Scientists determined that a minimum occurred in December, signalling the beginning of a new cycle. The next maximum is expected in July 2025.

This split image shows the difference between an active Sun during solar maximum (on the left, captured in April 2014) and a quiet Sun during solar minimum (on the right, captured in December 2019). December 2019 marks the beginning of Solar Cycle 25, and the Sun’s activity will once again ramp up until solar maximum, predicted for 2025. Credits: NASA/SDO

Steve Volz, NOAA’s Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services, told the Maryland Space Business Roundtable on Tuesday that the legislation will help NOAA focus on its operational mandate. He was supportive of the commercial space weather data pilot program, but unsure how many commercial partners are available. “We have reached out to the community a couple of times over the past five years asking for … commercial data to meet our space weather needs without a lot of results.”  But “we’ll continue to work with the commercial sector for places where their investments and their assets can meet our mission needs.”

Peters and Gardner issued a joint statement praising the bill’s passage. Peters pointed out that with the pandemic forcing everyone to “find innovative ways to stay connected, it has never been more important for our nation to protect against threats to our electric grid, telecommunications networks and even air travel.”  Gardner said it is “important that we prioritize the research and development necessary to reduce the risk and allow our nation to react and recover” from space weather events which have “the potential to disrupt essential services, communications, and everyday technologies we rely on, presenting significant economic and natural security implications.”

Perlmutter said the bill “will better coordinate federal research investments with our operational forecasters who provide warnings to impacted industries and ensure our academic, international, and commercial partners are working hand in hand to improve space weather forecasting, including with some of the best laboratories and research institutions on space weather right here in Colorado.”

While the focus of space weather research and operations is protecting satellite and terrestrial systems important for those us on the planet, it also has implications for astronauts travelling beyond low Earth orbit who could be harmed by solar radiation.  Brooks made that point today, saying “before we launch NASA’s Artemis manned Moon missions that pave the way to Mars missions, it is best and we should better understand how space weather phenomena impacts life in space, satellites, and other space instrumentation.”

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