White House puts $50M in small satellites, signs order to mitigate space-weather events

The Obama Administration is kicking off the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh this week, and as part of that it’s announcing a number of new initiatives in civic technology. These investments and programs include space, as well as America’s terrestrial concerns. It’s announcing over $50 million in new Federal investments in small satellite tech, which includes CubeSats and other low-cost space-based sensor and communication devices.

Smallsat revolution

The White House says in a release covering its announcements that the rise of so-called “smallsat” adoption has led to a boom in entrepreneurship around the design, construction and launch of these lightweight, inexpensive satellites. Federal agencies plan to invest in, and provide guidelines that will help foster even more growth in that area of entrepreneurship, the White House says, in order to help it meet certain “commercial, scientific and national security needs.” The goals it outlined in the release include blanket high-speed Internet connectivity (which is what Facebook has apparently been discussing with the White House) and space-based Earth imagery that is updated in ear real-time.

Of that $50 million the White House has committed to smallsat tech, $30 million is earmarked for public-private cooperation in creating “constellations of small craft” that can form an observation network for the purposes of Earth Science, and $20 million is going to startup Planet for the purchase of imagery from its network of smallsats for use by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Weathering the next solar storm

As well as committing to getting people to Mars sometime in the 2030s, the Obama Administration is also looking closer to home with its commitment to space-related technologies. Last October, the White House detailed a national preparedness plan commitment related to space weather events, which basically means that it’s looking to prevent damage on Earth from events like solar flares, and mass ejections of plasma material from the Sun (basically the Sun causes all these problems) that can do things like knock out communication and electronics on Earth.

Today, the White House announces a new Executive Order to help further that mission. Here’s how the Administration describes the new Order Obama will sign today:

The new Executive Order will minimize economic loss and save lives by enhancing national security, identifying successful mitigation technologies, and ordering the creation of nationwide response and recovery plans and procedures. Further, the Executive Order will enhance the scientific and technical capabilities of the United States, including improved prediction of space-weather events and their effects on infrastructure systems and services. By this action, the Federal Government will lead by example and help motivate State and local governments, and other nations, to create communities that are more resilient to the hazards of space weather.

Space weather sounds almost farcical as a term taken on its own, but the potential impact on Earth is no joke – a 1989 blackout that spanned the entire Canadian province of Quebec, for instance, can be attributed directly to the results of a significant solar storm. Schools and businesses were forced to close during the blackout, which lasted 12 hours, and even city transportation and airports suffered major stoppages as a result.

The Obama White House has proven to be a strong supporter of space exploration and the development of space-related tech, but the question always remains about how subsequent administrations will view space in terms of budget priorities. Still, the initiatives announced today have clear and present benefit for humans living on Earth, too, so hopefully they’ll continue to enjoy favor at the federal level.