House Committee Approves Space Weather Legislation

House Committee Approves Space Weather Legislation

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee approved a space weather bill this morning at its first meeting in the 2nd session of the 116th Congress. The Senate Commerce Committee approved its own version in April 2019, but filed a report on the bill only in December.  Coupled with a significant boost in NOAA’s budget for a Space Weather Follow-On program in the FY2020 appropriations bill, it could be that after several years of trying, a space weather bill may finally clear Congress.

This legislation is not about money, but about assigning roles and responsibilities to various agencies involved in space weather research and forecasting, and ensuring interagency coordination.  The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) already provides a coordinating role, but the legislation goes further and would codify it all in law.

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 key stakeholder agencies identified in the House bill are NOAA, DOD, NASA, NSF, the Department of the Interior (DOI), and the FAA.  As explained in the bill, NOAA provides operational space weather monitoring and forecasting for civil applications; DOD does that for its own needs. NASA conducts research on the fundamental physics of the Sun-Earth system. NSF studies the Sun-Earth system through ground-based measurements, technologies and modeling.  DOI collects, distributes, and archives operational ground-based magnetometer data, works internationally to improve global geophysical monitoring, and develops crustal conductivity models to assess and mitigate risks from space weather induced electric ground currents. FAA provides operational requirements in support of aviation.

The House and Senate have evidenced a strong interest in space weather research and forecasting capabilities for several years, but prior attempts to pass this type of organizational legislation have failed.  Congress has added money in appropriations bills, however, most recently more than doubling NOAA’s FY2020 budget for new space-borne space weather instruments.

The bill approved by committee today is H.R. 5260 (Perlmutter), the Promoting Research and Observations of Space Weather to Improve the Forecasting of Tomorrow (PROSWIFT) Act.  It is similar to, but also different from, the bill approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in April, S. 881.

Both seek to ensure interagency coordination in researching, predicting and forecasting space weather, including sharing of data between the research and operational communities, and the long-term availability of requisite ground- and space-based systems.  They also reach out to the international, academic and commercial sectors for input.

But they go about it differently.  The Senate bill is much broader, for example.  While both bills direct OSTP to establish a space weather interagency working group under its National Science and Technology Council, the membership in the House bill is those six agencies — NOAA, NASA, NSF, DOD, DOI, and FAA.

The Senate bill specifically includes three more: the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Energy, and the Department of State.  DHS, the White House National Security Council (NSC), and the FAA figure prominently in the Senate legislation.  The bill directs DHS to assess the vulnerability of critical infrastructure to space weather events and support critical infrastructure providers in managing risks and vulnerability, while the NSC, working with others in the national security community, is to do the same for national security assets. The FAA is directed to assess the safety implications and vulnerabilities of the National Airspace System to space weather events and assess methods to mitigate the safety implications for aviation communications and navigation (ground- and space-based) and the “potential health effects of radiation exposure.”  The House bill contains no similar provisions.

Both establish a Space Weather Advisory Group composed of five representatives each from the international, academic, and commercial sectors, but the House bill assigns it a larger role.  Conducting a survey of user needs is required in each bill, but the House assigns that task to the Advisory Group.  The Senate bill directs government agencies (NOAA, the Air Force and the Navy) to do it.

Both require OSTP to develop an “Integrated Strategy” for ground- and space-based space weather observations and measurements beyond the lifetimes of current assets, but differ in the details and the timeline.  The House further requires that it be reviewed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine before it is submitted to Congress.  A manager’s amendment adopted today changes some of the deadlines in the original bill and ties that action to when the user survey is completed rather than a date certain.

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma) speaking at the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee markup of space weather legislation, January 9, 2020. Screengrab.

Another major difference was added by an amendment offered by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), the top Republican on the committee.  It creates a commercial space weather data pilot program at NOAA that sounds similar to the commercial weather data pilot program established in 2015 under the leadership of Jim Bridenstine, then a Congressman from Lucas’s state of Oklahoma and now the NASA Administrator.

Lucas made clear in his opening statement at the markup and later when introducing the amendment that its adoption was a prerequisite for his support of the bill as a whole. Negotiations with the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), apparently were tense up until the last minute.

If my amendment is adopted, I believe this legislation becomes a comprehensive bill that addresses the needs of all those who are participating in developing the United States’ space weather strategy. And with the adoption of my amendment, I offer my support on passage of this bill.

I want to thank Congressman Perlmutter and his staff for their willingness to negotiate up to the last minute so that we could reach a deal to put forth what I believe is the best possible version of legislation on this important topic. — Rep. Frank Lucas

He emphasized that the pilot program expires in four years, so the bill does not permanently authorize it.

The provision requires NOAA to establish a commercial space weather data pilot program within one year of the bill’s enactment.  Through that program, NOAA is to offer to enter into contracts with “one or more entities in the commercial space weather sector” to provide data that meets standards and specifications that NOAA, in consultation with the Secretary of Defense, must publish within 18 months of enactment. The data may be ground-based, ocean-based, air-based, or space-based.  NOAA “may offer” to award “at least one” competitively-bid contract within 12 months of when the Integrated Strategy required in the bill, as reviewed by the National Academies, is transmitted to Congress.  “If” one or more contract is awarded, NOAA is to assess the value of the pilot program and report to Congress within 4 years of enactment.

Perlmutter praised the bipartisan legislation, co-sponsored by Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), especially for breaking down barriers between the research and operational space weather communities.  Colorado plays a big role in space weather research and forecasting.  It is the home of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado Boulder, and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR).  For his part, Brooks heralded the work done at Marshall Space Flight Center on space weather.  He and Perlmutter noted that understanding space weather is not only important for the inhabitants of Earth, but for human exploration of the solar system where astronauts are exposed to solar radiation without Earth’s protective envelope.

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