Washington, D.C. – Policymakers are moving legislation that could help thwart a potentially catastrophic threat of which we know very little.

Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), Cory Gardner (R-CO), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) are striving to boost our understanding of space weather, which includes eruptions on the surface of the sun that can penetrate Earth’s atmosphere and have the potential to paralyze the electric grid for months, depending on the severity of the event. The senators sponsored a bipartisan bill that calls on federal agencies, like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to research space weather and improve forecasting abilities, but does not authorize any additional funding.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a markup of the bill, S. 2817 – Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act – on 27 April during which a couple amendments were suggested and adopted. The amendments from Senators Edward Markey (D-MA) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) further clarify federal agencies’ roles and highlight the U.S. Geological Survey’s efforts to include space weather events in its crustal conductivity models and provide additional roles for the Federal Aviation Administration to prepare national airspace for space weather events.

The bill received support from a majority of the committee members and will be reported to the Senate for further consideration.

“Space weather events have the potential to cost our economy trillions of dollars in lost productivity by interfering with infrastructure that’s critical to our everyday lives – from our electrical power grid and GPS satellites to air traffic control,” Peters said in a statement. “We must ensure that we have the tools and resources to research and predict these events, and protect our nation’s infrastructure so we can avoid an economic catastrophe in the event of severe space weather,” Peters said.

Space weather and its effects

Space weather describes what happens when an event on the sun makes its way toward Earth. Some space weather events are relatively harmless, like auroras, and some can be problematic, like solar flares and coronal mass ejections.

The Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) and Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) brighten the sky when electrons carried by the solar wind crash into the tiptop of Earth’s atmosphere. The solar wind is a stream of charged particles, including electrons and protons, which are released from the Sun. The electrons gain energy as they accelerate toward Earth and follow Earth’s magnetic field by moving toward the North and South Poles. In the Poles, the electrons collide with oxygen and nitrogen molecules in Earth’s upper atmosphere, about 80 to 500 km above the surface of the Earth, and excite them into higher energy states. When the molecules calm down to their normal energy states, they release their energy as light.

Photo of an Aurora Borealis taken aboard the International Space Station by one of the crew members while flying approximately 240 miles above Manitoba, Canada in January 2012. Credit: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

Coronal mass ejections are massive explosions of magnetic field and plasma from the Sun that can cause enhanced auroras and geomagnetic storms. The stronger the magnetic field concentration on the sun, the faster the ejection will travel – some of the fastest ejections can reach Earth in approximately 14 to 17 hours. Once they hit Earth they can cause geomagnetic storms on Earth that induce extra electrical currents in the ground that can affect and degrade power grids.

A coronal mass ejection narrowly missed Earth about 4 years ago, on 23 July 2012. “If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces,” Daniel Baker, a professor at the University of Colorado, told NASA Science News.

The most recent coronal mass ejection, of a similar size to the 2012 ejection, to hit the earth took place over 150 years ago in 1859. The “Carrington Event,” named for the English astronomer who recorded it, Richard Carrington, started one of the largest geomagnetic storms on record. If the same event happened today, society would be even more vulnerable to disturbances because of its dependence on electronic technologies, which would be heavily impacted.

Solar flares – giant outbursts of electromagnetic radiation from the Sun – can also impact technology by emitting strong x-rays that interfere with high-frequency radio waves used for radio communication among industries like commercial airlines and government agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Defense.

An X-class flare appears as a bright light in the upper right portion of the image, taken on 29 March 2014 by NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph at NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit: NASA/SDO/AIA

Steps to better prepare for space weather

The new Space Weather and Forecasting Act acknowledges the potential threat space weather poses for society and takes steps to bolster forecasting abilities. The bill sets research goals for different agencies to determine which space weather storms could have the most impact and makes sure the agencies are able to communicate their findings and forecasts effectively.

The bill clarifies how different federal agencies will be accountable for preparing the nation to best respond to space weather events. The bill provides the Department of Defense and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration responsibility for providing operational space weather forecasts. NASA and the National Science Foundation would support that forecasting through basic space science research. Specific responsibilities include:

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration – NOAA is called on to further research space weather science and forecasting technologies and maintain current ground and space-based equipment to forecast space weather events.

Department of Defense – DOD will research, monitor, and forecast space weather for missions and applications for national security purposes.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration – NASA will research fundamental physics questions about how the Sun can affect Earth through space-based observations.

National Science Foundation – NSF will research how the Sun can affect Earth through ground-based measurements.

Department of the Interior – DOI will store data about the Earth’s magnetic field and work with other countries to improve global geophysical monitoring.

Office of Science and Technology Policy – The White House Administration’s OSTP will improve how the country would prepare for, avoid, and react efficiently to a potentially devastating impact from space weather.

OSTP and the National Science and Technology Council, which establishes clear national goals for Federal science and technology investments, released a “National Space Weather Strategy,” which outlines a national action plan to enhance national preparedness for space weather events, in October 2015. The plan was acknowledged in the bill.

The bill also emphasizes the importance of interagency collaborations. NOAA and NASA will work together to develop space weather spacecraft, instruments, and technologies to better understand and predict space weather events. OSTP, NOAA, NASA, NSF, and DOD, working with academia, will develop technologies to observe the Sun and solar wind, which is made up of plasma that flows away from the Sun and is important to understand in order to better forecast space weather.

The bill also calls on the National Space Weather Program, an interagency space weather services initiative, to coordinate and collaborate with its federal agency partners including: the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the Department of the Interior, and others.

The bill has received widespread support from the scientific community. “I am delighted this legislation has been introduced and want to thank Senators Peters, Gardner and Booker for their leadership,” Baker said in a statement.

“Because space weather may have severe implications for our economic and national security as well as the potential to interrupt the delivery of essential services, it’s important that we prioritize the research and development necessary to reduce the risk and allow our nation to react and recover from these events,” Gardner said in a statement.

By Elizabeth Goldbaum, GSA Science Policy Fellow