Space weather efforts find stability despite presidential transition
SEATTLE — As a Senate committee approved a new version of a space weather research bill Jan. 24, officials at government agencies said they have seen little sign of changes to ongoing efforts in this field despite the transition in administrations.
The Senate Commerce Committee reported favorably the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act during a markup session where the committee considered several other bills and nominations. The bill is similar to one that the committee approved last year, but which died on the Senate floor.
“Committee passage of this legislation is an important step towards ensuring our federal agencies have the ability to predict and respond to space weather events and protect our vast communications systems in the event of extreme space weather,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), ranking member of the committee’s space subcommittee and one of five co-sponsors of the bill, in a statement after the bill’s passage.
The bill, like last year’s version, 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.
The bill also directs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop a successor to the aging Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft, used to monitor solar conditions, which NOAA is pursuing through the Space Weather Follow On program.
“The Senate Commerce Committee’s passage of bipartisan space weather legislation today brings us one step closer to having a response and recovery plan in place if a space weather event occurs,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), another co-sponsor of the bill, in a statement.
The legislation builds upon a national space weather strategy and action plan released by the Obama administration in October 2015. Like the bill, the action plan directed various federal agencies to take on various issues in the prediction of and response to space weather events.
In a session on the space weather action plan at the 97th Meeting of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) here Jan. 24, Bill Murtagh, program coordinator at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, said he welcomed the reintroduction of the bill and predicted it would eventually pass both houses of Congress.
“It captures a lot of the key pieces in the strategy and action plan, but it’s a recognition that, on the Hill, they need to legislate some of this,” he said, adding that the fact the bill has bipartisan support should help ease its way through Congress. “I do expect this to pass in this Congress.”
Murtagh recently completed a two-year detail at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where he led the interagency effort to develop that strategy and action plan. Work on implementing the action plan is continuing despite the change in administrations. He noted that an executive order signed by President Obama in October 2016 that formally established a space weather subcommittee within the National Science and Technology Council, staffed by various federal agencies, should give the effort some stability.
“A lot of people ask, with the change in administrations, what does all this mean?” he said. “We expect nothing to change with this change in administrations.”
Other panelists, representing several government agencies, said that efforts to implement the action plan were continuing. Robert Rutledge of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center said that the agency had gone ahead with plans to release a draft white paper on transitioning between space weather research and operations, which was published in the Federal Register Jan. 23.
Steven Clarke, director of NASA’s heliophysics division, said that most of the items in the action plan that were due to be completed within a year of its October 2015 release have been completed by the various agencies to which they were assigned. “There have been a few that have been extended, based on the time required to finish those items,” he said. “I think it’s worked out very well.”
Clarke said he has been working to support space weather research within his division despite dealing with fixed budgets. Plans for more research awards, he said, are pending the outcome of fiscal year 2017 appropriations. “If we get some additional budget before the end of this fiscal year, we’re ready to pull the trigger on additional awards in the space weather research area,” he said.
He added budget projections had called for an increase in heliophysics research and analysis funding in fiscal year 2018, which he believes has bipartisan support. “Right now I don’t feel like we won’t get what we requested,” he said. “We’ll see how that plays out.”