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NASA braces for solar storms that could bring critical systems to a halt

A House committee on Thursday approved a three-year authorization bill for NASA that includes a plan for issuing warnings about impending space storms that could knock out navigation systems, power and smart phones.

Because of technology's increasing reliance on satellites, many of the gadgets and systems Americans use on a daily basis are vulnerable to so-called space weather, according to NASA officials. The phenomenon refers to environmental conditions on the sun that can influence the performance and reliability of Earth-based and extraterrestrial digital systems.

The House Science and Technology Committee's legislation, H.R. 5781, which authorizes funding and missions for NASA, includes a long-term strategy for a sustainable space weather program. The White House, through the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, would have to define individual agency responsibilities for carrying out the line of attack.

According to NASA, the nation faces increasing uncertainty as Earth approaches the next peak of solar activity in 2013. The sun's magnetic field could produce turbulent solar wind, or charged particles streaming at high velocities. Other risks include solar flares, which are sudden eruptions of magnetic energy, as well as coronal mass ejections, emissions of plasma from the sun that disturb magnetic fields on Earth.

Just a few of the devices and services that could go down during bad space weather include credit card transactions, air travel networks, the transmission of geothermal and wind power, most mapping applications, and telemedicine systems that send patient images from hospitals to physicians.

The federal government already operates the National Space Weather Program. The forecasting initiative is overseen by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the Defense, Energy, Interior, State and Transportation departments.

The agencies monitor solar weather activity by exchanging data from space satellites, sensors and ground-based observational instruments. They then run the information through sophisticated computer models and generate analysis relevant to each of their departments' missions. NOAA heads up the effort to predict and describe space storms.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, a division of the Homeland Security Department, is not part of the initiative but recently has taken a greater interest in preparing for a potential space disaster. DHS is expected to join the program soon, according to officials. In June, FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate spoke at the annual space weather conference, which focused on critical infrastructure protection.

"This is, to me, no different than any other natural hazard that we face. It's going to occur. It's part of our environment. And to the average person it's a nonevent except for the technologies that we are dependent upon," he said. "We're not ready. So, give me better data, give me longer warning, give me better impacts, so we can go tell the story to the decision-maker of why we have to update and develop our plans around this hazard so that if it does occur, it is an event, not a catastrophic disaster."

The House bill also calls for the government to commission a National Academies study on the country's ability to accurately predict space weather and report findings and recommendations to Congress within 18 months after passage.

NOAA and the other agencies in the program are collaborating to enhance the precision and timeliness of space weather forecasts with more sophisticated algorithms. Populating outer space with thousands of satellites to keep an eye on the sun is not an option, NASA officials said.

"We can't afford to be everywhere all the time," Richard Fisher, head of NASA's heliophysics division, said on Thursday. "The scales are just enormous."

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