National Research Council outlines 10-year solar and space physics plan

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The National Research Council is recommending a 10-year research path to studying the sun, including its connections with the Earth and its interactions with other bodies in the solar system in a new report

A team of about 85 solar and space physicists and space system engineers lay out four scientific goals for basic and applied research for the next 10 years, according to a National Research Council announcement describing highlights of the 454-page report. They are:

  • Establish the origins of the sun's activity and predict variations in the space environment.
  • Determine the dynamics and coupling of Earth's magnetosphere, ionosphere, and atmosphere and their response to solar and terrestrial inputs.
  • Understand the interaction of the sun with the solar system and the interstellar medium.
  • Discover and characterize fundamental processes that occur both within the heliosphere and throughout the universe.

Other priorities should be to "investigate space physics at the edge of the heliosphere where the sun's influence wanes, the effects of processes in Earth's lower atmosphere on conditions in space, fundamental questions related to the creation and transport of plasma in Earth's ionosphere and magnetosphere, and how the Earth responds globally to magnetic storms from the sun," according to the announcement.

The group also wants to launch a multiagency initiative called DRIVE to "more effectively exploit NASA and (National Science Foundation) scientific assets," and another multiagency initiative to better understand and forecast space weather and how it affects society.

"The significant achievements of the past decade set the stage for transformative advances in solar and space physics," said committee Chairman Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "In turn, these advances will support critical national needs for information that can be used to anticipate, recognize, and mitigate space weather effects that are adverse to human life and the technological systems society depends upon."

The report addresses budget challenges, interagency coordination and "limited availability of appropriately sized and affordable space launch vehicles." The committee recommends continuing support for the fleet of heliospheric, geospace, and planetary spacecraft comprising the Heliophysics Systems Observatory.

It also recommends NASA accelerate and expand by $70 million per year the Heliophysics Explorer program, bringing back midsize Explorers and supporting "missions of opportunity" leveraging interagency, international and commercial flight partnerships.

The study was sponsored by NASA and the National Science Foundation.

Julie Bird is a freelance reporter.

For more:
- go to the report, "Solar and Space Physics: A Science for a Technological Society"
- read the highlights

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