NASA could get funds for solar-storm warning system

Agency also takes aim at asteroids

Congress is keeping an eye out for stormy weather in space. Last week, the House Science and Technology Committee approved an authorization bill for NASA that includes provisions for issuing warnings about inclement solar weather in the form of storms that could damage satellites and affect space and Earth-based communications systems and power grids.

The legislation, H.R. 5781, authorizes NASA funding for the next three years. The bill includes a long-term strategy for a space weather program. Nextgov reported that NASA has predicted the next peak of solar activity in 2013. Besides the stream of charged particles constantly flowing from the sun, known as the solar wind, our closest star also produces solar flares and coronal mass ejections—plasma emissions that can disturb magnetic fields on Earth.

As the U.S. and the world become more reliant on satellites for navigation and communications, the potential for major disruptions from solar events continues to increase. A major solar storm or series of storms could affect air travel, mapping applications, credit card transactions and telemedicine systems.

The House bill also calls for the government to commission a study on the nation’s ability to predict space weather and report its findings to Congress within 18 months after passage.

The government already has the National Space Weather Program, which is overseen by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the departments of Defense, Energy, Interior, State and Transportation.

On a related topic, a NASA task force has called for the agency to establish a Planetary Defense Coordination Office to protect the Earth from asteroids. Composed of scientists, academics and former astronauts, the task force is considering the potential for launching surveillance spacecraft to look out for incoming or threatening near Earth objects.

Space.com reported that the task force’s recommendations, which will go to the NASA administrator, will address the overall issue of protecting the planet from asteroid impacts. The task force is also exploring the possibility of using commercially available hardware to make a global, ground-based short term warning system capable of providing days or hours of warning about smaller incoming asteroids.

The task force is also pondering emergency management issues, in the event that the planet does get hit by an incoming asteroid.

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