The last decade of heliophysics research helped in understanding how the Sun’s flaring, magnetically tumultuous behavior drives space weather. The next decade should focus on the near-Earth responses to those drivers, says Dan Baker, chair of the heliophysics decadal survey, which was released on Wednesday by the National Academies.
“I think we’re now bringing this a lot closer to home, with a lot more focus on the near-Earth end,” says Baker, who heads the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The survey emphasizes the tangible effects that space weather has on Earth activities — everything from the power grid to satellite communications — even as, programmatically, it makes recommendations for smaller-scale research efforts and competitive mission lines.
Sponsored by NASA and the National Science Foundation, the survey involved more than 100 scientists and took nearly two years to make. Its release comes just as the Sun is set to reach its 11-year ‘solar maximum’ of magnetic activity next year. Like other decadal surveys in astrophysics and planetary science, agencies will use the report to secure backing in Congress for the listed priorities.
Top priority was a new multi-agency initiative called DRIVE (Diversify, Realize, Integrate, Venture, Educate), a hodge-podge of small-scale efforts that would include support for cubesats, instrumentation for large projects, and augmentations to strategic lines of research. Baker says the effort, which calls for a $33 million boost to existing funding lines, will help knit together the different agencies pursuing heliophysics research, and prepare the field for the missions coming later in the decade. “We have to make progress on the small end of the specturm in order to make progress on the big.”
The second recommendation is to expand and accelerate NASA’s competitive Explorer programme line by $70 million a year so that a mission could be launched every two or three years — and so that a mid-scale Explorer with a higher budget envelope could be launched alternately.
Coming in at #3 is a recommendation to change the Solar Terrestrial Probes programme into a competitive, principal-investigator-led mission line that would work like a larger version of the Explorer programme, with a $520 million mission launching every 4 years. The first recommended mission within this line would be IMAP, the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe, which would act as a high resolution follow-on to the Voyager and IBEX missions.
The last recommendation is to keep the large flagship Living With a Star programme, and that the next mission within the programme, the Geospace Dynamics Constellation, should explore the effects of the Sun and space weather on the ionosphere, thermosphere and mesosphere.
But in order to begin such a flagship mission, NASA first has to finish its current flagship, the $1.25 billion Solar Probe Plus, which is scheduled for a 2018 launch and is about to enter its expensive implementation phase. Thomas Zurbuchen, the survey’s vice chair and an associate dean for entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, says interviews with that project’s team assured the survey that the price tag was “robust”. Still, Baker says, the survey includes “decision trees” in case Solar Probe Plus goes over budget. The survey does not want to repeat what happened with the 2010 astrophysics survey, where massive cost overruns with the James Webb Space Telescope have precluded most of that report’s recommendations. “It’s dangerous to be a blade of grass when the elephants are dancing,” says Baker.