Space Weather Bill Clears Senate, Creates Pilot Program at NOAA

Space Weather Bill Clears Senate, Creates Pilot Program at NOAA

The Senate passed the PROSWIFT space weather bill on July 27, another step along what has been a long path for the legislation. It is a compromise with a version adopted by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee in January that includes a provision calling for NOAA to create a commercial space weather data pilot program akin to its commercial weather data program. All that is needed now is passage by the House and a signature from the President, which would mark the end of a five-year effort.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Michigan)

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.

NOAA plays the operational role in space weather forecasting for the civil sector with its Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, CO, and is responsible for space-based sensors to detect CMEs and monitor the solar wind. NASA is in charge of research into solar and space physics. DOD provides forecasts for military operations. Other agencies, such as NSF, support basic research or are involved in mitigating against space weather events.

Space weather phenomena. Credit: Steele Hill/NASA

While the bill does not authorize funding, it directs NOAA, working with NASA and DOD, to develop plans for backup space-based observational capabilities including to the European Space Agency’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). Launched in 1995, SOHO is the only existing space weather satellite equipped with a coronagraph to detect CMEs. Located at the Sun-Earth Lagrange Point 1 (SEL-1), SOHO is long past its design life. NOAA is already working on replacing its capabilities through the Space Weather Follow-On program, but this bill formalizes NOAA’s responsibility.

Senators Gary Peters (D-MI) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) first introduced space weather legislation in 2016 (S. 2817), the 114th Congress. It did not pass, and they tried again in the 115th Congress (S. 141) where it passed the Senate, but not the House. They began again last year at the opening of the 116th Congress and their new bill, Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act (S. 881), was approved by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in April 2019.

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma)

Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) and Mo Brooks (R-AL) introduced a somewhat different version of the Peters/Gardner bill.  The Promoting Research and Observations of Space Weather to Improve the Forecasting of Tomorrow (PROSWIFT) Act (H.R. 5260) was approved by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on January 9, 2020,

During markup, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) proposed an amendment that calls on NOAA to establish a commercial space weather data pilot program.  NOAA is to enter into contracts with one or more entities for ground-based, ocean-based, air-based, or space-based space weather data that meets standards and specifications set by NOAA in consultation with DOD.

It is 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. NOAA just declared that pilot program a success.

Lucas made it clear that adoption of his amendment was a prerequisite for his support of the bill. The language is permissive not directive, saying NOAA “may” create the program, not that it “shall.”

The committee agreed to the amendment and it is now incorporated into S. 881 as it passed the Senate.

The House committee-approved bill had some other relatively minor differences with its Senate counterpart that the two sides have worked out. Both directed OSTP to establish an interagency working group under its National Science and Technology Council to coordinate space weather efforts across the government, but the Senate envisioned a broader membership. In the compromise version, they split the difference, specifying five agencies (NOAA, NASA, NSF, DOD and the Department of the Interior) and leaving it up to the Director of OSTP to decide what others should be included.

Both established a Space Weather Advisory Group, but the House bill gave it broader authority. The final bill adopts the House position that the Advisory Group, rather than government agencies, conduct a user survey to identify space weather research, observations, forecasting, prediction, and modeling advances required to improve space weather products.

Both required OSTP to develop an “integrated strategy” for ground- and space-based weather observations and measurements, but differed in the details. The compromise bill adopts the House requirement that the strategy be reviewed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine before it is submitted to Congress and ties deadlines to completion of the user survey.

Peters is optimistic this time is the charm and the bill will make it into law.

“The question is not if but when the next major space weather event will impact us. This bipartisan bill will put us on the right track to better predict and reduce disruptions to our economy, and after passing the Senate, I am hopeful we can get this bill signed into law.”  — Sen. Gary Peters

Gardner added: “It’s important that we prioritize the research and development necessary to reduce the risk and allow our nation to react and recover from these events, which the Senate did today by passing this bipartisan bill.”

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