U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, will convene a hearing titled, “Space Missions of Global Importance: Planetary Defense, Space Weather Protection, and Space Situational Awareness,” at 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, February 12, 2020. The hearing will focus on U.S. leadership in space missions vital to the global economy and the protection of human health and life on Earth. Witnesses will also discuss policies, programs, and research that are important for planetary defense, space weather protection, and space situational awareness.
- Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator, Science Mission Directorate, National Aeronautics and Space Administration
- Mr. William Murtagh, Director, Space Weather Prediction Center, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration
- Mr. Kevin O’Connell, Director, Office of Space Commerce, Department of Commerce
- Dr. Moriba Jah, Associate Professor, Advanced Sciences and Technology Research in Astronautics, University of Texas
*Witness list subject to change
Wednesday, February 12, 2020
Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
This hearing will take place in the Hart Senate Office Building 216. Witness testimony, opening statements, and a live video of the hearing will be available on www.commerce.senate.gov.
Chairman Roger Wicker
NASA is the lead agency tasked with detecting and monitoring “celestial projectiles” that could impact Earth. Avoiding a devastating asteroid or comet strike requires the cataloging of those objects, monitoring them, and developing capabilities to prevent an impact – this has been an education to me as chairman of this committee. Thanks to earth’s atmosphere, we rarely notice the impacts from thousands of objects hitting our planet every day. Fortunately, incidents such as the “1908 Tunguska Event”, which flattened 80 million trees over 2,000 square kilometers of land in Siberia are exceedingly rare. Conservative estimates of that kind of event put the explosive force at 185 times stronger than the energy unleashed at Hiroshima. And sometimes, as our colleagues from Arizona know, the craters left behind from these events can become tourist destinations.
NASA has identified many of the largest near-Earth objects, but more work is needed – and we have given direction in this regard. Congress has previously directed the agency to conduct a survey of all near-Earth objects greater than 140 meters in diameter. The NASA Authorization Act reported favorably by this Committee would require NASA to launch a space-based telescope to facilitate detection. We look forward to hearing about the future of NASA’s planetary defense mission.
The committee’s NASA Authorization bill also supports efforts to study the physics of our Sun and its effects on Earth’s magnetic field. NASA missions such as the Parker Solar Probe contribute to our understanding of the solar phenomena behind space weather. NASA’s work is complemented by NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Colorado.
Last year, this committee marked up the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act, sponsored by Senators Peters and Gardner. This legislation would clarify responsibilities for federal agencies and establish an interagency working group to coordinate these efforts. I look forward to working toward passage of space weather legislation during this Congress.
High-energy space weather events can significantly disrupt air travel, radio communications, and the electronic devices that underpin our digital economy. The committee would benefit from the witnesses’ testimony on how the United States is preparing for these events.
At the same time, hundreds of thousands of objects in orbit are increasingly making space more unforgiving. Over 2,000 active satellites and over 500,000 pieces of debris larger than a marble are currently orbiting Earth. Space Situational Awareness programs and technology to track objects and avoid collisions are increasingly important as the private sector begins to populate space with so-called “mega-constellations” of hundreds or thousands of satellites to provide connectivity around the globe.
In response to this challenge, the National Space Council – chaired by Vice President Pence – has issued the National Space Traffic Management Policy, which directs the Secretary of Commerce to take the lead role in providing basic space situational awareness data and space traffic management services to the public.
Senator Cruz’s Space Frontier Act would help the Department of Commerce implement its assigned role by elevating the current Office of Space Commerce to the Bureau of Space Commerce and designate its leader as an Assistant Secretary. This organizational change would give Space Situational Awareness the higher profile it deserves.
The United States has an indispensable role in addressing the challenges of planetary defense, space weather protection, and space situational awareness. We are the world’s preeminent spacefaring nation. I look forward to hearing from our witnesses as to how we construct a policy framework to meet these challenges.
I now turn to our Ranking Member, my friend Senator Cantwell, for her open comments.
Ranking Member Maria Cantwell
CANTWELL: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you for holding this hearing, and welcome to the witnesses. I so appreciate having a hearing about the space mission of global importance. The space economy to the state of Washington is tremendously important. It’s a 1.8 billion dollar economy and with companies like Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Aerojet Rocketdyne, thousands of jobs are dependent on how the country continues to move forward in this area.
The U.S. government, industry, and citizens are increasingly dependent on satellites for a number of critical activities including financial transactions, national security, intelligence operations, forecasting of natural disasters, and the services provided by in-space assets are nearly ubiquitous in our daily lives—from everything from Google maps, to GPS satellite for weather apps, to data from NOAA’s satellite fleet. Satellites are also critically important in improving our understanding of climate and how to help monitor our natural resources.
Many of these satellites aren’t owned by a country but instead privately operated. The global commercial space industry is already worth 385 billion dollars. As I mentioned, in the state of Washington, it’s a big economic impact, and we are certainly proud of a long history that we’ve had with the space industry. It is critical that we manage space in a way that allows that economy to continue to grow. Threats like orbital debris, a congested space environment, space and weather, and near-Earth asteroids all pose a threat to the satellites. Despite the potential devastation of satellite collisions, a massive space or weather event, or other impacted large asteroids impacting Earth, we still know just not enough about these incidents and possibilities. So it is long past time for the federal government to try to tackle these issues.
For too long, our science and observations have needed improvement and understanding, and that is why the committee included a provision in our NASA authorization act requesting the administration to study new funding mechanisms to address the missions of national importance here. Take planetary defense for example. While cataloguing near-Earth asteroids is critical to safety and even survival, the science of detecting these objects—we aren’t really at the cutting edge of where we need to be. For a long time, the only way a mission to detect these asteroids could be funded was by competing with other missions in NASA. And we certainly don’t want to continue to see that happen.
Consequently, an asteroid detection mission was not approved, because it was not considered high enough on the value chain for science, and the government needs to change that. Our understanding of space weather is still at its infancy, and forecasters cannot currently predict with confidence how a space weather event will impact life on Earth. Emissions from the sun can disrupt electrical power grids, communications networks, and aircraft systems. In 1989, a geomagnetic solar storm caused a 12-hour blackout in the entire providence of Quebec, Canada. In 2005, solar activity severely degraded airline pilot communications over the United States. So infrastructure in high altitude regions, and such as in like Washington state where we’re very vulnerable to space weather, NOAA provides space weather warnings for the nation, but some of those satellites NOAA uses for space weather forecasts are over 20 years old.
So finally, we must tackle the challenge of orbital debris and congested space environment. There are currently more than 2,200 active satellites in orbit, and several companies have proposed launching new mega constellations that could push that number to the tens of thousands. In addition, there are over half a million pieces of orbital debris in the Earth, much of which is not tracked. So the collision between these could also be very problematic.
Near collisions are happening with increasing frequency. The United States and other space-faring nations need to improve our tracking of these objects. And today the Air Force provides thousands of notifications of those potential collisions, most of which are ignored, I think, by the satellite operators because they cannot rely on a predictable system. So, we need to explore this and think about guidelines that we should have for this kind of orbital debris and making sure we don’t have these collisions. So, we need to dramatically increase our research dollars in all of these areas, and we need to ensure that agencies like NASA can fund missions and operations to improve our understandings of these threats, and continue to give assessments here in Washington to policy makers so we can move forward. My constituency is very excited about the future of space, I guarantee it. That’s why we call it the Space Needle. And we will continue to want to push forward on this agenda. There are many pioneers there, but we also have to do our job here in making sure that we continue to fund the level of research and development necessary for us to continue to be leaders in this sector. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Witness Panel 1
Dr. Thomas ZurbuchenAssociate Administrator, Science Mission DirectorateNational Aeronautics and Space Administration
Mr. William MurtaghDirector, Space Weather Prediction CenterNational Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration
Mr. Kevin O’ConnellDirector, Office of Space CommerceDepartment of Commerce
Dr. Moriba JahAssociate Professor, Advanced Sciences and Technology Research in AstronauticsUniversity of Texas