01.17.17

Peters, Gardner, Booker & Wicker Reintroduce Bill to Improve Space Weather Prediction

Legislation Will Help Mitigate Economic Impact of Technological Disruptions Caused by Solar Flares

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), Cory Gardner (R-CO), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) announced today they introduced the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act, legislation that would help improve efforts to predict space weather events and mitigate their impacts on Earth and in space. Space weather events, such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections, are caused by naturally occurring changes in emissions from the sun, and can result in costly and dangerous disruptions in the electrical power grid, communications networks like cellular phones and GPS, satellite communications, and air traffic control operations. Peters, Gardner and Booker previously introduced the bill in the 114th Congress, where it unanimously passed the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

“As we become increasingly interconnected through cell phones, connected cars, appliances and even utilities, our way of life faces greater vulnerability from space weather events that can cause serious disruptions,” said Senator Peters, Ranking Member of the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee. “I’m pleased to join Senators Gardner, Booker and Wicker in reintroducing this legislation, which will help ensure we have the necessary tools to better predict the impact of space weather events and prevent the disastrous economic consequences they can cause.”

“Space weather’s potential impact on our economy means that we must have a robust response and recovery plan in place in the event a space weather event occurs,” said Senator Gardner. “It’s time for Congress to recognize the need to be prepared and ensure our critical infrastructure remains protected, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to see this bill become law.”

“Space weather events have the potential to inflict catastrophic damage on everything from our power grids to our communications networks to our economy as a whole,” said Senator Booker. “By empowering federal agencies to better predict space weather events, this bill will help our country better prepare and protect vital infrastructure.”

“There is a lot we do not know about predicting space weather,” Senator Wicker said. “Staying one step ahead of potentially disruptive events in space could help us avoid costly disasters. Federal agencies, such as NASA, NOAA, and FAA, will need to play a role in this emerging field. This legislation would help set clear guidelines and responsibilities for these agencies to get the job done.” 

The Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act strengthens space weather research by directing federal agencies to develop new tools and technologies to improve forecasting and set benchmark standards to measure space weather disturbances and their potential impacts to Earth. The legislation outlines clear roles and responsibilities for the federal 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), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The legislation also directs NOAA to develop plans to provide a back-up for the aging Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) satellite, the only currently operating 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. 

Constantly changing conditions in the Sun’s magnetic fields create solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which are observed on Earth as the Northern and Southern Lights. Solar flares are built up energy released as bursts of radiation, while CMEs are explosions of the Sun’s magnetic fields and ionized gas releasing radiation and energized particles that interact with the Earth’s magnetic fields.

Space weather has the potential to impact infrastructure on Earth and significantly disrupt the economy. An estimate by Lloyds of London estimates a worst-case scenario space weather event could cost up to $2.6 trillion and impact as many as 40 million people by causing outages at electric utilities, disrupting GPS and communication networks and forcing airlines to reroute air traffic.