26 February 2024

Science for a Technological Society

Success in the astronomical sciences requires forethought and action from policy leaders today. The astronomical decadal surveys are widely recognized by policy makers as the pinnacle of scientific forethinking. They set ambitious and inspirational national priorities that require federal support to maintain US leadership. 

Our community must continue to advocate for and steward the priorities of the decadal surveys, especially through tumultuous and uncertain federal budgets. Let’s make sure to remember and celebrate our community’s scientific successes and honor the brilliant minds who have overcome scientific, technical, and personal challenges in the pursuit of science and scientific excellence.  

The AAS Policy Blog will have a series of posts written by guest authors who will assess our progress on the decadal priorities and identify new opportunities and challenges for the coming decade. This week, Daniel Baker walks us through the 2013-2022 Decadal Survey in Solar and Space Physics.

Science for a Technological Society 

Daniel Baker, Distinguished Professor, Director of Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, University of Colorado 

Congress mandates (51 USC § 20305) that the NASA Science Mission Directorate go to the National Academies once a decade for an analysis of the state of the field and a recommended prioritization of the research and programmatic areas. As is well known in policy circles, decadal surveys serve several key purposes. They take a very careful look at a scientific field and recommend top-priority goals. Surveys also provide strong recommendations to the primary targeted agencies (NASA, NOAA, NSF, Dept of Defense, etc.) concerning support for facilities and research themes. Decadal surveys recommend programmatic direction and give explicit advice on government investments for facilities and space missions. And — quite importantly — decadal surveys address issues about technology development, interagency coordination, education, and international cooperation and collaboration. The surveys are widely recognized by the agencies and by Congress as the best advice and widest consensus from the science community about what is important for the federal government to pursue.  

I served as the Chair of the National Academies 2013-2022 Decadal Survey in Solar and Space Physics (S&SP). The Deputy Chair was Thomas Zurburchen, then at the University of Michigan (who later in 2016 became Associate NASA Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate). The S&SP Decadal was subtitled “A Science for a Technological Society.”  The Decadal focused upon solar, interplanetary, magnetospheric, and ionospheric research themes, but it also spoke often — and in many ways — about the “applied” side of the discipline which is often referred to by the multi-faceted term called “space weather.” The S&SP Decadal was spearheaded by a steering group comprised of 18 senior scientists and engineers along with dozens of individuals who served on subpanels of the Decadal. The survey was also informed by 288 community-generated responses to a survey, “request for information.” 

There were several themes and missions from the first S&SP decadal (2003) that were still in development or just about to be launched as the 2013 decadal was completed. This included the Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) mission — later renamed the Van Allen Probes — that launched in late August of 2012 just as the 2013-2022 Decadal was rolled out. Also, the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission was well along in its development in 2012-13 and the S&SP Decadal strongly endorsed completion of the MMS flagship mission for the discipline. MMS — a four-spacecraft constellation program — launched successfully in March 2015 and continues to make exquisitely precise measurements of plasmas, electric and magnetic fields, and energetic particles throughout the Earth’s magnetospheric system. Both the Van Allen Probes and the MMS mission have rewritten the textbooks about radiation belt science and magnetic reconnection, respectively. 

One of the biggest issues laid on the doorstep of the 2013-2022 Decadal was whether to endorse the Solar Probe (SP) mission, which was a high-priority recommendation of the 2003 decadal — but which had not started significantly by 2012 and, while maintaining the objectives of the 2003 SP mission, also differed in several respects. The 2013 Decadal team embraced and supported going forward with “Solar Probe Plus” — but did so with strict guidelines on cost containment and mission scope. The decision to proceed with Solar Probe Plus (renamed the Parker Solar Probe (PSP) mission in 2018) has been validated by the exciting new solar and interplanetary results from PSP including measurements within just a few solar radii of the Sun’s visible surface. 

A major feature of the 2013-2022 Decadal was to be cognizant of the tight agency budgets at the time of the Decadal release. Decision rules were put in place within the Decadal that emphasized “small end” programs with high priority, especially if larger programs could not be immediately affordable. A “vitality” program called DRIVE (Diversify, Realize, Integrate, Venture, Educate) was recommended for both NASA and NSF to infuse substantial amounts of new resources into the research community even if major missions needed to be delayed somewhat. The DRIVE established new community research centers, promoting SmallSat and CubeSat mission programs, and supported many interagency initiatives between NASA, NSF, and NOAA. The 2013 Decadal also strongly endorsed the revivification of the NASA Explorer program for solar and space physics. 

As implied above, a substantial part of the past decade has been devoted to “cleaning up” and completing programs and plans that were initiated by the 2003 S&SP Decadal. At this point, RBSP has been successfully completed, ending its observations in 2019. MMS continues to be highly successful, as does PSP. As noted, the DRIVE initiative continues to be immensely useful and is active among all the spacefaring agencies. The Explorer program of NASA has been reinvigorated and has established a strong cadence of small and mid-sized Explorer missions. Perhaps one of the greatest achievements in space physics research has been the explosion of science return from the CubeSat class of small satellite missions. These have revolutionized space research and engaged hundreds or possibly thousands of new students and professional participants. 

The first major new program recommended for NASA in the 2013 Decadal was the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) mission. IMAP is well along in its development now with flight instruments being integrated into the spacecraft bus. IMAP will launch in 2025 and is expected to make major contributions to solar, interplanetary, and space weather disciplines. 

The next major space mission recommended in the 2013-2022 Decadal was the Geospace Dynamics Constellation (GDC). This program only got its new start in 2022 and has been hampered by severe budget constraints being imposed on NASA’s Heliophysics Division and Congressional budget restrictions. GDC is the flagship NASA mission in the Living With a Star program and has been long sought for decades; It was the highest priority program for the space weather-related component of the 2013 Decadal. NASA, NOAA, and other agencies concur that the science of GDC is fundamental for improving space weather prediction and forecasting. The severe budgetary constraints that are being imposed for Fiscal Year (FY) 2024 and FY 2025 have been devastating for GDC and threaten the viability of the entire NASA space science enterprise. There should be strong, coordinated community action to help ensure that the entire NASA space research program moves forward in an orderly and cost-effective way as envisioned in the Decadal Surveys. 

So, where are we now in solar and space physics policy? The new decadal survey process for S&SP has been underway for more than a year and it is expected that the new survey will be released shortly. There are high expectations for the new plan in many respects. There is hope for recommendations to expand the heliophysics system observatory concept to include NSF’s ground-based facilities and the many upcoming small-sat missions. Also, identifying measurements from the current NASA and NSF facilities for future system-science goals will be crucial, and continuing such observational capabilities will also be highly desirable. Including the science of space weather explicitly within NASA and NSF program plans to improve space weather predictability will be crucially important and this will engage NOAA as well in the development of space weather research and applications. Improving multi-agency and international coordination of heliophysics research and space weather applications will be essential as well. 

NASA cross-divisional opportunities are abundant for exoplanetary-planetary, astrospheric-heliospheric, solar-stellar, and atmosphere-Earth science research and development. A prioritized strategy for implementing such cross-disciplinary research is very much needed. Certainly, consolidation of ground-based solar, heliospheric, and space weather science could be better supported. NSF can improve and broaden its structure for heliophysics research (e.g., outer heliosphere and planetary science elements are currently missing). NSF could improve the cost effectiveness of the operations of its many ground-based observatories in several ways such as by sharing data analysis tools and data centers. 

To the best of our present knowledge, life exists only on our planet, Earth. Other worlds that seem — or would have seemed — habitable and even hospitable to life at one time, such as Mars and Venus, have been ravaged by the effects of solar storms and runaway atmospheric degradation. Observations of thousands of “other Earths” around distant stars also suggest that many of these exoplanets have been buffeted by the relentless battering of stellar outbursts that are the counterparts to what we call space weather here in our local cosmic neighborhood. Can we use our detailed knowledge and understanding of our Sun and its diverse planetary family to address the profound question of whether we are alone in the Universe? A goal in our near-term solar and space physics research program should be nothing less than to take the advances that are possible in solar system observation and modeling and apply the wisdom gained from this eminently executable research enterprise to the most fundamental questions confronting humanity.