Space Weather Threat Bill Passes House and Heads to President’s Desk

September 16, 2020 Updated: September 16, 2020

The U.S. House Wednesday passed a bipartisan bill from Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) to bolster the country’s ability to predict severe space weather events and mitigate their impacts on Earth.

The Promoting Research and Observations of Space Weather to Improve the Forecasting of Tomorrow (PROSWIFT) Act first passed in the Senate in July and now heads to President Trump’s desk to be signed.

Severe space weather events include solar flares, which have the ability to cause major disruptions to electric power grids, communications networks including cellular phones and GPS, satellites, and aircraft operations.

Currently, it is difficult to know when one of these events will occur, but Peters believes that this legislation will help the U.S. to predict and lessen the impact of such space storms.

“With the Coronavirus pandemic forcing schools, small businesses, and families to find innovative ways to stay connected, it has never been more important for our nation to protect against threats to our electric grid, telecommunications networks, and even air travel,” wrote Peters in a Wednesday statement.

The bill aims to identify roles for various governmental and scientific agencies, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to conduct research related to space weather, monitor the sun’s activity, provide warnings of storms that may affect satellites and Earth’s infrastructure, and respond to such events.

The PROSWIFT Act makes the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy the coordinator to establish a working group within the agency and create an external consulting group with members from academic, industrial, and other non-government organizations.

According to NOAA, solar flares can impact systems and technologies in orbit and on Earth. A type of severe solar flare, coronal mass ejections (CME), induced the largest space storm on record in 1859. If a storm of this magnitude occurred today it would damage electrical grids, causing widespread electrical disruptions and blackouts, potentially costing trillions of dollars.

The insurance market company in England, Lloyds of London, in a 2013 report on the financial impact of CMEs, estimated that a worst-case space weather event like the 1859 event could cost over $2.6 trillion.

The bill also requires NOAA, along with NASA and the DOD, to develop plans for how to replace the aging Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) satellite which was launched in 1995 to study the sun.

The legislation requires that the National Academies’ space weather strategy goes through review.  The bill authorizes NOAA to create a commercial space weather data pilot program, mimicking an earlier pilot program that purchased terrestrial weather data from commercial satellites.