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Senators Introduce Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
April 24, 2016
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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)

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) today announced they are introducing the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act, bipartisan legislation to improve efforts to predict and mitigate the effects of space weather events on Earth and in space. Space weather refers to conditions caused by naturally occurring variations in emissions from the sun, such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections. Space weather events can disrupt the electric power grid, communications networks, GPS, satellites and aircraft operations leading to serious economic and safety consequences.

“Space weather events have the potential to cost our economy trillions of dollars in lost productivity by interfering with infrastructure that’s critical to our everyday lives – from our electrical power grid and GPS satellites to air traffic control,” said Senator Peters, Ranking Member of the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee. “We must ensure that we have the tools and resources to research and predict these events, and protect our nation’s infrastructure so we can avoid an economic catastrophe in the event of severe space weather.”

“Because space weather may have severe implications for our economic and national security as well as the potential to interrupt the delivery of essential services, 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,” said Senator Gardner.

“It may be hard to conceive of the impact space weather can have on our planet, but make no mistake, extreme space weather events can cause catastrophic damage to our nation’s infrastructure and economy,” said Senator Booker. “This bill will help us to prepare, predict, and mitigate these extreme events.”

“Space weather can adversely affect satellites resulting in the loss of critical systems, such as communications, hurricane and severe weather forecasting and GPS or location-based services, that depend on space-based networks and support our daily way of life,” said Tom Stroup, President of the Satellite Industry Association (SIA). “Early warning and prediction of space weather can help mitigate the economic effects both in space and here on the ground. In this regard, SIA and its members support the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act that codifies several actions identified in the National Space Weather Action Plan.”

“Extreme space weather can pose a serious threat to our economy as well as to the safety and security of citizens in the U.S. and around the world,” said Jack Hu, Vice President for Research at the University of Michigan. “It has the potential to cause widespread blackouts in our electrical grid, for example, or to interfere with satellites used for GPS and communications. The University of Michigan applauds Senators Peters, Gardner and Booker for introducing the bipartisan Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act, which provides guidance to federal agencies working to increase our ability to understand, predict, and forecast space weather for the benefit of all.”

“As chair of the 2013 Decadal Survey Committee on Solar and Space Physics, I am delighted this legislation has been introduced and want to thank Senators Peters, Gardner and Booker for their leadership,” said Professor Dan Baker, Director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric Space Physics (LASP) at CU-Boulder. “I believe this legislation will be instrumental in helping the nation achieve the kind of operational space weather system that we’ve long needed. The bill will allow science, engineering, and the applications thereof to contribute to continued U.S. leadership in this area.”

“This first of its kind legislation in regards to space weather demonstrates a solid understanding of the problems and solutions and is a fantastic first step,” said Dr. Scott McIntosh, Director of the High Altitude Observatory. “I am grateful that Senators Peters, Gardner and Booker worked with our community and I thank them for their leadership on this critical national issue.”

“Space weather has the potential to inflict trillions of dollars of damage on our economy, weaken our national security, and alter our way of life,” said Christine W. McEntee, CEO and Executive Director of the American Geophysical Union. “We support the bill’s approach of creating a national, coordinated plan to advance our understanding of the relationship between the sun and Earth and to ensure the development of new technologies and forecasting capabilities to mitigate the threat posed by space weather. As a community dedicated to advancing the understanding of Earth and space science, we applaud the bill’s intent to further scientifically informed action towards disaster preparation, mitigation, response, and recovery.”

Space weather events are caused by constantly changing conditions in the Sun’s magnetic fields that create solar flares, which are built up energy released as a burst of radiation, or coronal mass ejections (CME), which are explosions of the Sun’s magnetic fields and ionized gas releasing radiation and energized particles that interact with the Earth’s magnetic fields. This can be observed on Earth as the Northern and Southern lights.

These events can impact infrastructure and businesses, including causing outages at electric utilities, disrupting GPS and communication networks and forcing airlines to reroute air traffic, resulting in multi-million dollar economic damages. Estimates for damages from a worst-case scenario space weather event could be up to $2 trillion and impact as many as 40 million people.

In 2014, NASA reported that 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.

The Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act will improve space weather research and response by delineating clear roles and responsibilities to the agencies that study and predict space weather events, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), 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.

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