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Chairman Roger Wicker: Space Missions of Global Importance: Planetary Defense, Space Weather Protection, and Space Situational Awareness

Status Report From: Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
Posted: Wednesday, February 12, 2020

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.

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