WASHINGTON — NASA will not have the budget for large-scale solar physics missions over the next several years and should rebalance its portfolio in this research discipline to favor small and medium-sized missions, an independent panel of scientists said.

The National Research Council panel charged with mapping out a 10-year plan for NASA’s Heliophysics Division also called for reorganizing the nation’s space weather forecasting program. The panel’s report, “Solar and Space Physics: A Science for a Technological Society,” was released Aug. 15 here.

“If there is a unifying theme, it is that this will unify and prepare us for what we think is the brighter future for the opportunities that come in the latter part of this decade,” said Daniel Baker, the University of Colorado at Boulder physics professor who chaired the heliophysics decadal survey. The roadmap sets the heliophysics community’s science priorities for 2013 to 2022 and recommends ways to accomplish those goals.

The nearly 500-page report said existing programs “will consume nearly all of the resources anticipated to be available for new starts within NASA’s Heliophysics Division through the midpoint of the overall survey period, 2013-2022.” The so-called baseline program includes operational missions as well as those in formulation or advanced development.

The report’s first recommendation is that NASA “complete the current program.” Among the heliophysics missions now in development are the Radiation Storm Belt Probes, twin orbiters slated to launch Aug. 24 to explore the Earth’s radioactive Van Allen belts; the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph instrument, a small probe launching early next year to peer 2,000 kilometers into the sun’s atmosphere; and the ambitious Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, a squadron of four formation-flying Earth orbiters penciled in for liftoff in 2015.

The report caps two years of discussions between the heliophysics community and the National Research Council’s Space Studies Board. It is the second 10-year plan developed by the solar physics community — the first was released in 2003. The Committee on a Decadal Strategy for Solar and Space Physics, which authored the latest survey, will convene in five years for a “mid-decade review” to rate the U.S. government’s progress in implementing its recommendations.

Because the panel expects the current budget situation to last at least that long, however, it recommended steering more funds toward small- and medium-class missions, such as those in NASA’s Explorer program, while scaling back the Solar Terrestrial Probes series of larger missions.

The committee said NASA should “accelerate and expand the Heliophysics Explorer program,” increasing its annual budget by about $70 million. Factors including rising launch costs are making medium-class missions more expensive, reducing the number NASA can pursue at any given time, the report said.

With the panel’s proposed funding increase, NASA could launch an Explorer-class mission every two to three years, the report said. The White House requested $46.1 million for the Heliophysics Explorer program in 2013 but plans to almost double that budget by 2014.

Congress gave the program $60 million in 2012 and $92 million in 2011.

Explorer missions are led by a single scientist called a principal investigator. These cost-capped, competitively selected missions typically have a budget of $120 million to $180 million, including launch. Heliophysics and astronomy once shared a common Explorer budget account, but beginning in 2012 the two disciplines got separate Explorer budget lines.

The funding boost for Explorer-class missions should come at the expense of the larger Solar Terrestrial Probes, the decadal said.

These missions, which include the Magnetospheric Multiscale constellation under development at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., should have their costs capped at $520 million, the report said. In addition, responsibility for these missions should be given to a single principal investigator, as is done in the Explorer program, the panel said.

The Solar Terrestrial Probe line “has evolved into a large mission program, dominated by NASA centers with cost growth over the past decade that threatens its future viability,” the report said.

Speaking at the decadal survey’s unveiling, Baker said, “We have to make progress on the small end of the spectrum to eventually make progress on the big end of the spectrum.”

The Magnetospheric Multiscale mission is slated to launch from Florida aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. NASA estimates it will cost $860 million to build and launch the spacecraft, according to the 2013 budget request the White House released in February.

With regard to space weather, the heliophysics decadal survey recommends reorganizing the existing National Space Weather Program under the auspices of the National Science and Technology Council, part of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The program is currently managed by the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Meteorology, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Space weather refers to solar and other space radiation events, which can damage electronics and organic tissues. Like terrestrial weather events, space weather events can happen in bursts that are difficult to predict.



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Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.