House Infrastructure Bill Includes $173 Million to Improve Space Weather Forecasting

An artist’s rendering of the Space Weather Follow-on L1 satellite. (Credit: NOAA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The House Science Committee approved an infrastructure bill that provides an additional $173 million to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to accelerate the development and launch of the Space Weather Follow-On Lagrange-1 (SWFO-L1) mission. The spacecraft, scheduled for launch in 2024, will monitor the solar wind and coronal mass ejections from the Earth-sun L-1 Lagrange point.

Coronal mass ejections from the sun can cause solar storms that disrupt satellites, ground communications, electrical grids, aviation, navigation and other critical infrastructure. A massive geomagnetic storm shorted out telegram systems in 1859 in what is known as the Carrington Event. A similar event today could be devastating to the global economy.

Scientists currently uses three aging spacecraft — Advanced Composition Explorer, Deep Space Climate Observatory, and the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) — to monitor the sun’s corona and solar storms. Officials have said the SWFO-L1 mission is a priority given that existing satellites could fail before the new spacecraft is launched.

The measure, which is part of a $3.5 trillion bill, must pass the full House and the Senate. Prospects are uncertain given opposition to the size of the measure.

The House bill said accelerating the development of SWFO-L1 will help NOAA implement the Promoting Research and Observations of Space Weather to Improve the Forecasting of Tomorrow (PROSWIFT) Act. That measure, signed into law last year, was designed to reorganize and strengthen the nation’s monitoring of and response to space weather and solar storms.

PROSwift assigned roles to federal departments and established an interagency working group to coordinate their activities. The bill assigned the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) with the task of developing and implementing a coordinated federal effort to observe, predict and respond to space weather events.

OSTP has been working with agencies to develop an integrated strategy for sustaining and expanding Earth- and space-based measurements essential for space weather research, modeling and forecasting.

PROSwift established an interagency space weather working group with representatives from NOAA, NASA, Department of Defense, National Science Foundation and the Department of the interior.

NOAA was tasked with creating a 15-member space weather advisory group composed of five representatives apiece from academia, commercial space weather sector, and the non-governmental end user community.

“The advisory group shall conduct a comprehensive survey of the needs of users of space weather products to identify the space weather research, observations, forecasting, prediction, and modeling advances required to improve space weather products,” the bill said.

PROSwift assigned specific roles to the following federal agencies:

NOAA: provide operational space weather monitoring, forecasting, and long-term data archiving and access for civil applications; maintain ground-based and space-based assets needed for space weather forecasting, prediction, and warnings; conduct research to support operational responsibilities; and develop requirements for space weather forecasting technologies and science.

NASA: conduct basic research into space weather and the Sun-Earth system; perform space-based observations and modeling; and develop new space-based technologies and missions.

DOD: conduct operational space weather research, monitoring and forecasting for defense needs.

FAA: provide operational requirements for space weather services in support of aviation; coordinate with the International Civil Aviation Organization; and integrate space weather data and products into the Next Generation Air Transportation System.

NSF: provide increased understanding of the Sun-Earth system through ground-based measurements, technologies and modeling.

Department of the Interior: collect, distribute, and archive operational ground-based magnetometer data; work with the international community to improve global geophysical monitoring; and develop crustal conductivity models to assess and mitigate risks from space weather-induced electric ground currents.

The bill also gave NOAA the authority to launch a pilot space weather program.

PROSwift directed federal agencies to “increase engagement and cooperation with the international community, academic community, and commercial space weather sector on the observational infrastructure, data, and scientific research necessary to advance the monitoring, forecasting, and prediction of, preparation for, and protection from, space weather phenomena.”

The act also directed NOAA to work with NASA, DOD, other federal agencies and international partners to secure reliable backup capability for the near real-time imagery and measurement of coronal mass ejections, solar wind and other relevant observations.