President Obama Orders Government to Plan for ‘Space Weather’ Chaos

Turning his attention to the heavens — and how turbulence there could create chaos on Earth — President Obama directed the federal government Thursday to come up with a plan to deal with "space weather."

Space weather, by the way, is a catch-all for disturbances in the area between the sun and Earth, such as solar flares, that wreak havoc on the electrical power grid, GPS systems, aviation equipment, satellites and other technology that have become integral to human life.

The Aurora australis, also known as the southern lights, glows above the Earth on July 15, 2012. Joe Acaba / NASA via AP

Particularly bad storms of this kind can bring down parts of the power grid, "resulting in cascading failures that would affect key services such as water supply, healthcare and transportation," according to an executive order Obama signed Thursday. "Space weather," the order adds, "has the potential to simultaneously affect and disrupt health and safety across entire continents."

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The directive put several federal agencies on notice that they have six months to come up with a sweeping plan to predict and detect these interstellar events, alert the public, protect critical infrastructure and recover from the damage. That includes NASA, which will create a research program to "understand the sun and its interactions with Earth and the solar system."

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The president signed the order as he prepared for a daylong Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh, where he planned to announce $300 million in spending on a variety of projects aimed at keeping the United States on the edge of technological innovation over the next 50 years, from understanding Alzheimer's disease and road traffic to preventing biased policing to putting a person on Mars.

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Obama will detail some of these efforts as a guest editor of the November issue of Wired magazine.