Space weather bill clears Senate committee

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WASHINGTON — The Senate Commerce Committee approved a bill April 27 that would assign roles and responsibilities to government agencies to forecast and prepare for space weather events.

The committee approved by voice vote the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act, introduced a week earlier by Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.). The bill was one of several considered by the committee during a markup session, with no debate about it prior to committee’s vote.

The version passed by the committee included minor changes to that originally introduced, as well as two amendments. One amendment, by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), clarified the role of the Department of the Interior in studying ground currents induced by solar storms. The other, by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), included microsatellites and ground systems as potential options that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should consider for collecting critical space weather data.

The bill was introduced by Peters, along with Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), to codify many elements of a space weather strategy and action plan released by the White House last October. The bill closely follows those administration documents in assigning tasks to government agencies, including giving NOAA and the Defense Department primary responsibility for operational space weather forecasting.

“The bill that we’re going to be marking up this week clarifies where everybody’s role is,” Peters said in an April 26 speech to a joint meeting of the National Academies’ Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board and Space Studies Board here.

Peters, the ranking member of the Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee, said he was made aware by scientists at the University of Michigan of the potential risk posed by space weather to the electrical grid, communications and other elements of modern civilization.

“We have worked with a number of federal agencies, from NASA to NOAA to Homeland Security to the Department of Defense, bringing everybody together, to make sure everyone has clear roles,” he said. “Nobody’s going to be left out.”

Peters cited recent research that estimated a 12 percent chance of a “Carrington event” in the next decade, a reference to a powerful solar storm that struck the Earth in 1859, disrupting telegraph services. “That’s why we have to be thinking about these things, and we have to be making investments in it. It costs money, and we want to make sure we move the science forward,” he said.