Senate Science Committee Approves Space Weather Bill

On June 20, 2013, NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft captured this coronal mass ejection (CME). A solar phenomenon that can send billions of tons of particles into space that can reach Earth one to three days later. (Credit NASA)
On June 20, 2013, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft captured this coronal mass ejection (CME). A solar phenomenon that can send billions of tons of particles into space that can reach Earth one to three days later. (Credit NASA)

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has approved a slightly modified version of the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act, which will fund work on protecting the nation from the effects of solar flares and coronal mass ejections that could fry our energy grid.

The bi-partisan measure will improve space weather research and response by delineating clear roles and responsibilities to the agencies that study and predict space weather events, including NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Defense (DOD).

The legislation strengthens space weather research by directing federal agencies to develop new tools and technologies to improve forecasting and develop benchmark standards to describe space weather disturbances and their potential impacts to Earth.

The legislation also directs NOAA to develop plans to provide a back-up for the aging Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) satellite, the only satellite providing imagery of space weather that could impact Earth.

Additionally, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will be directed to use space weather research and information to assess and support critical infrastructure providers that may be impacted by space weather.

An extreme space weather event narrowly missed Earth on July 23, 2012. Analysts believe that if a CME of that size had directly hit the Earth, it would have caused widespread power outages and disabled electronics, disrupting daily life and requiring nearly two years for full recovery.

The Earth was last hit by a CME of that magnitude in 1859, known as the Carrington Event, which caused the Northern Lights to be seen as far south as Cuba. In March 1989, a geomagnetic storm knocked out the power grid in Quebec for nine hours, affecting six million people.

According to a 2014 study by Predictive Science Inc., the estimated chances of another Carrington Event-sized CME hitting the Earth within the next decade is 12 percent, roughly the same chance of a magnitude 8 earthquake hitting the United States.