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NASA Eyes Gradual Shift toward Smaller Heliophysics Missions

The Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission craft being assembled at Goddard Space Flight Center. Credit: NASA photo by B. Lambert

WASHINGTON — A NASA science official told a congressional panel Nov. 28 that the agency’s heliophysics division is about a year away from rearranging its roughly $600 million-a-year budget to heed the National Research Council’s call for a shift toward smaller solar science missions than the lineup now in development.

“I believe beginning in the 2015 budget request, we would begin to see maybe some slight rebalancing,” Charles Gay, deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, told the House Science space and aeronautics hearing. “But our goal would be to achieve that over the next five to 10 years.”

NASA’s 2015 budget request will be sent to Congress in February 2014, about seven months before the Oct. 1 start of the U.S. government’s new fiscal year.

Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), the subcommittee’s chairman, convened the hearing to review the recommendations of the National Research Council’s latest so-called decadal survey for solar and space physics. The 10-year plan was released in August.

Gay told lawmakers that NASA is pleased with the results of the decadal survey and intends “to work towards accomplishing the priorities of the scientific community in a timely manner.” But he also warned that implementation of the survey’s recommendations will be challenging given the budget constraints NASA faces.

The decadal survey, “Solar and Space Physics: A Science for a Technological Society,” calls for NASA to finish the four heliophysics missions now in development — launches are slated for 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2018 — then reorganize the heliophysics program to favor cheaper, smaller missions.

Palazzo asked whether NASA has enough funding to complete the heliophysics missions currently in development, given that the U.S. government is already running on a stopgap spending measure that caps spending at 2012 levels through at least March and forbids new program starts.

“We don’t anticipate any problems, at least for the next six months,” Gay said. He pointed out that the division’s 2012 appropriation, $622.3 million, is not far below the $647 million the White House requested for 2013.

No NASA heliophysics officials testified at the hearing. The agency has been without a permanent heliophysics director since Barbara Giles left the post Nov. 5 to become associate lab chief at the Goddard Space Flight Center’s Geospace Physics Laboratory in Greenbelt, Md. Giles had been director of NASA heliophysics since Sept. 30, 2011. Her deputy, Victoria Elsbernd, became the division’s acting director Nov. 15, according to NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown.

The four big solar physics missions currently in NASA’s queue are:

  • The Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, or IRIS. The Explorer-class mission is scheduled to launch in April 2013 aboard an Orbital Sciences Corp. Pegasus XL rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. NASA projects spending about $123 million on the mission through 2015, budget documents show.
  • The Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission. Slated to launch from Florida in 2015 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5, the mission is expected to cost $860 million to build and launch, according to budget documents. The spacecraft is being assembled at the Goddard Space Flight Center.
  • The Solar Orbiter Collaboration. A joint mission with the European Space Agency, the spacecraft is scheduled to launch on its seven-year mission in 2017 aboard an Atlas.
  • Solar Probe Plus. The flagship-class mission to explore the outer corona of the sun is notionally targeted for launch in the 2018 timeframe, but is still in the formulation phase and has not been confirmed. A confirmation review is tentatively scheduled for late 2013, Gay said.

 

RESOURCES

Written testimony and webcast of the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee’s Nov. 28 hearing

The latest NRC Heliophysics Decadal

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