Report highlights progress in heliophysics despite budget challenges

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — An independent review has concluded that NASA and other agencies have generally done a good job implementing the most recent decadal survey for space physics, despite funding for such programs that was lower than predicted.

The report by a National Academies committee, released Feb. 3, offered a midterm assessment of the decadal survey on solar and space physics published in 2013 that provided guidance for NASA’s heliophysics program and space science work at the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The report’s lead authors said that those agencies are doing a good job implementing recommendations about research programs, space missions, and other activities. “I think the major takeaways are that most of the recommendations that were made in the decadal survey have been implemented or will be implemented over the next few years,” said Robyn Millan, a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College and co-chair of the midterm review committee, during a Feb. 3 webinar presenting the report results.

One of the biggest challenges to implementing those recommendations has been budget problems. Over the last five years, the budget for NASA’s heliophysics division has increased by 14%, slightly less than the rate of inflation. By contrast, NASA’s overall budget rose by 23% and the budget for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, which includes heliophysics as well as astrophysics, Earth science and planetary science, rose by 30%.

Those budget shortfalls, coupled with cost increases on some heliophysics programs, have pushed back development of other missions, like the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP), scheduled for launch in 2024. NASA has also yet to start work on another mission recommended by the decadal survey, called Dynamical Neutral Atmosphere-Ionosphere Coupling (DYNAMIC). The midterm report called on NASA to take steps to plan for a “DYNAMIC-like mission,” which could follow IMAP.

Millan emphasized that NASA was still working to carry out those missions despite the delays. “Some of them got started late because of budget constraints, but we’re well on the way to having those implemented successfully,” she said. One recommendation of the report, however, was for NASA to create a “more efficient management environment” for its Explorer line of heliophysics missions in order reduce costs and increase the frequency of such missions.

A related issue is that the development of new space weather responsibilities across government agencies, part of a broader space weather strategy in recent years, had not been backed up within “meaningful” additional funding.

“That is an ongoing problem that may or may not be solved over the next couple of years,” said Thomas Woods, associate director of technical divisions in the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder and the other co-chair of the committee. The implementation of a national space weather action plan, he said, could force action on the issue by Congress.

Another challenge noted in the report has been a lack of stability in leadership of NASA’s heliophysics division. Six different people had led the division, some on an acting basis, from 2011 until the division’s current director, Nicola Fox, was appointed in September 2018.

The report, though, also highlighted strengths of space physics programs at NASA and elsewhere. It praised NASA and NSF in particular for its support of cubesat programs in heliophysics, including the “impressive growth” of cubesat efforts within NASA’s heliophysics program.

“The explosion of small satellite projects is going to provide new opportunities for science well beyond what was envisioned in the decadal survey,” Millan said.