Sun and magnetosphere
Solar wind is depicted arriving at Earth's magnetosphere. Credit: ESA artist's concept

WASHINGTON — With a little help from the European Space Agency, NASA could soon find itself cooperating in a roundabout way with China on a small solar science mission, the director of the U.S. space agency’s Heliophysics Division said here Sept. 29.

NASA is mulling participation in the Sino-European heliophysics mission known as the Solar wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer (SMILE). The spacecraft would carry four instruments and study the interaction of solar winds — charged particles emanating from the sun — with Earth’s magnetosphere.

The mission would launch in 2021, assuming ESA and the Chinese Academy of Sciences approve it later this year. A final decision is expected as soon as November, Steven Clark, the new director of NASA’s Heliophysics Division, said here at NASA Headquarters in a presentation to the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) heliophysics subcommittee.

U.S. law forbids bilateral cooperation between NASA and China, so the U.S. agency would have to funnel its contribution — which might be hardware, or scientists for the mission’s science team — through ESA, Clark said. U.S. law also forbids American-built hardware and technology from launching aboard Chinese rockets.

“There are options; I’ve talked to ESA about that,” Clark told the NAC subcommittee. “We would deliver hardware to ESA. ESA would do the integration activities in Europe and in fact ESA would be looking at launching off a European launch vehicle.

“It’s not a bilateral between China and the U.S.,” he added. “This is a partnership between ESA and China with U.S. participation.”

Clark said he discussed SMILE with his European — and not Chinese ­— counterparts Sept. 22-23, when NASA sent a delegation from its Science Mission Directorate to speak with ESA officials at the European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.

If selected as an ESA S-class science mission in November, SMILE would enter a two-year study period before development could proceed. The last ESA S-class mission, the Characterising Exoplanets Satellite, had a 500 million euro (roughly $550 million) cost cap and is set to launch in 2017.

ESA and China have cooperated in space relatively recently. Europe’s Cluster satellites and China’s Double Star/Tan Ce satellites operated together from 2004 to 2008 on another solar science mission.

In 2011, then-U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) inserted language into spending bills that fund NASA forbidding the agency from working with China or Chinese companies. Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), the current chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over NASA, has vowed to uphold Wolf’s ban.

A stopgap spending bill that would fund the U.S. government through Dec. 11 would continue that ban. The bill, approved by the Senate and sent to the House Sept. 28, would fund NASA and other federal agencies at 2015 levels.

Meanwhile, U.S. and Chinese officials met in Beijing to discuss cooperation in civil space, according to a Sept. 28 press release from the U.S. State Department.

Topics discussed at the inaugural Civil Space Dialogue included: space debris; satellite collision avoidance; national plans related to space exploration; and cooperation on civil Earth observation activities, according to the press release.

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.