By Connor Dacey, GSA Science Policy Fellow

When most people hear the word “weather”, they probably think about clouds, rain, or temperature.  They probably don’t look up toward the sky and think about magnetic storms, radiation, or solar flares.  However, this is precisely the kind of information that interests those in the space weather industry.  Space weather generally refers to “conditions on the sun, in the solar wind, and within Earth’s magnetosphere, ionosphere and thermosphere that can influence the performance and reliability of space-borne and ground-based technological systems and can endanger human life or health”.[1]  Often times these space weather events are linked to emissions, typically referred to as coronal mass ejections, from the sun’s surface.  Once these emissions arrive to Earth, they can cause numerous negative effects such as communication disruptions, surges in power lines, and even corrosion of oil pipelines.  On the other hand, they can also make a stunningly bright aurora borealis.

Aurora borealis--the "northern lights" -- light the sky over the Sondrestrom Upper Atmospheric Research Facility in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland.
Aurora borealis–the “northern lights” — light the sky over the Sondrestrom Upper Atmospheric Research Facility in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. Credit: National Science Foundation

Within the last five years, the topic of space weather has caught the attention of policymakers.  In 2015, the Obama administration released their National Space Weather Strategy and National Space Weather Action Plan, which were followed up by the Trump Administration in 2019.[2]  On September 16th, 2020 the Promoting Research and Observations of Space Weather to Improve the Forecasting of Tomorrow (PROSWIFT) Act (H.R.5260, S.881) passed in the U.S. House of Representatives via a voice-vote, two months after the U.S. Senate passed an identical bill.  The bipartisan bill then moved to the President’s desk, where it was signed into law on October 21st, 2020.

This bill lays the foundation for how different federal agencies should work together in order to better forecast, research, and mitigate the effects of space weather.   The majority of the responsibilities listed within the bill were given to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  Some of NOAA’s new responsibilities include providing reliable backup options to measure solar wind and coronal mass ejection imagery in the event current measuring systems fail.  NOAA is also directed to establish a pilot program “under which the Administrator will offer to enter into contracts with one or more entities in the commercial space weather sector.”  These private companies would then supply NOAA with essential space weather data to be used for research and forecast models.

The bill instructs NOAA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of the Interior (DOI), and the Department of Defense (DOD) to develop a space weather interagency working group that focuses on space weather.  The bill clearly lists all the roles and responsibilities for each of these different agencies as it relates to space weather.  More specifically, it directs these agencies to prioritize space weather research, “including science priorities identified in the decadal surveys for solar and space physics produced by the National Academies.”2  It recommends that this research be developed with operational usage in mind.  This type of research directly aligns with the Geological Society of America’s (GSA) position statement to support planetary exploration.  To elaborate, GSA “supports planetary exploration to advance research concerning the evolution of Earth, the solar system, and beyond.” [3] This bill received endorsements from several scientific organizations including the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR).2

The PROSWIFT ACT calls for a space weather advisory group of no more than 15 members from the academic, commercial, and nongovernmental space weather end user community to be established within 180 days of it becoming law.  This advisory group will work to inform the overall space weather interagency working group on ways the United States can mitigate, respond to, and recover from space weather events.  The bill unites representatives from all different sectors to work together in order to further the advancement of space weather research and operations.

The PROSWIFT Act requires the advisory group to administer a comprehensive survey of the needs of space weather products to “identify the space weather research, observations, forecasting, prediction, and modeling advances required to improve space weather products.”[4]  This survey will allow all of the involved agencies to get a better idea of the exact needs and interests of those in the space weather industry, which will then be used to create future goals and actions plans. It promotes the open exchange of space weather data and supports research of space weather, heliophysics, and Geospace science.