Senate passes space weather bill

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WASHINGTON — The Senate unanimously passed a bill May 2 intended to support space weather research and planning to protect critical infrastructure from solar storms.

The Senate passed, via unanimous consent, the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act. The bill cleared the Senate Commerce Committee in January, which had approved a similar bill in 2016.

The bill is designed to outline roles and responsibilities for various U.S. government agencies to research, forecast and respond to space weather, which can affect communications, the power grid and other systems. It builds upon a national space weather strategy and action plan released by the Obama administration in October 2015.

The legislation directs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop options to replace solar imaging data provided by the aging Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft, launched more than 20 years ago. NOAA is pursuing that through its Space Weather Follow-On program. That program received $5 million in the fiscal year 2017 omnibus spending bill released May 1, double the amount in NOAA’s original request.

“I am pleased the Senate approved this commonsense, bipartisan legislation that will help ensure federal agencies are able to protect against extreme space weather, and I urge the House of Representatives to swiftly approve this bill so we are well prepared to predict and avoid a possible worst case scenario space weather event,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), lead sponsor of the bill, said in a statement May 2.

“A large-scale space weather event could have a major impact on our economy and national security and interrupt the delivery of essential services,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), a co-sponsor of the bill, in the statement. “We must prioritize research and development in our critical infrastructure and be prepared to respond to a potentially catastrophic event.

The bill’s other co-sponsors are Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).

Despite the change in administrations, officials with NOAA and NASA said earlier this year that there were no changes in the implementation of space weather action plan developed during the Obama administration.