A measure that pushes federal agencies to work together on forecasting solar flares that can scramble satellites has passed the Senate.
The bill, sponsored by Colorado Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, would eventually put the Defense Department and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in charge of government efforts to track weather in orbit that are now spread across several agencies.
It also directs federal agencies to partner with the booming commercial space sector and come up with a plan to replace an aging NASA satellite that monitors the surface of the sun to detect solar radiation and eruptions that send ionized particles blasting across the solar system.
Gardner acknowledges it's a fairly obscure topic.
"Space weather certainly isn’t something that hits the nightly news," he said Thursday in a telephone interview.
But events on the surface of the sun can have huge impacts on Earth and on spacecraft in orbit. A solar storm in 1989 knocked out power in the Northeastern U.S. and Canada and disrupted signals between satellites and ground controllers. That storm also acted like wind against satellites and space junk, blowing them into new orbits and threatening to cause collisions in space.
A solar eruption in 2012 narrowly missed Earth, but even the near miss caused some disruption of signals from space, including the Colorado Springs-based Global Positioning System, which is used for everything from in-car navigation systems to precision timing for stock trades.
And new solar storms could do even more damage: SpaceX has already launched 540 satellites for a planned internet-delivery constellation that will eventually include more than 4,000 spacecraft and Amazon is working on a similar constellation as the commercialization of low-Earth orbit heats up. The Space Foundation in Colorado Springs on Thursday estimated that commercial revenue from space grew by nearly 7 percent in 2019 to more than $336 billion worldwide.
With good space weather forecasts, satellite operators can avoid damage during solar storms by moving their spacecraft into a safer orbit or shutting the machine down until the storm passes.
But detecting solar storms before they hit Earth is tricky, and it has taken decades to develop reliable modeling to predict when a storm is imminent. And some of the top experts in the field live in Colorado, with NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder and U.S. Space Command in Colorado Springs.
"Colorado is the epicenter for space weather," Gardner said.
Just as the tracking of objects in orbit has spawned a commercial industry in Colorado Springs, space weather could also draw private-sector business as corporate investment in space grows.
With future plans for hotels and even factories in space, Gardner said getting a clearer picture of what's coming from the sun has never been more crucial.
"We will be better able to utilize all layers of space with more information," he said.
A companion measure has already passed a House committee and awaits a floor vote, making the space weather bill a rare bipartisan accomplishment in what has been a contentious congressional session.