Solar Orbiter Mission Burned by Rising Launch Costs


SAN FRANCISCO — Although the budget for NASA’s Heliophysics Division is expected to grow slightly in the years ahead, rising launch costs may force NASA’s solar scientists to modify plans for a collaborative solar orbiter mission with European partners later in the decade.

“Our budget remains approximately level through 2015 and we are happy about that,” said Richard Fisher, Heliophysics Division chief for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

The White House funding plan sent to Congress in February proposes a slight increase in heliophysics spending, rising 2 percent to $622 million in 2012 and growing a further 6 percent to $658.7 million in 2016. If approved by Congress, that money would enable sun scientists to proceed with plans to launch four missions between 2012 and 2015, followed by a high-priority mission to plunge a spacecraft into the solar atmosphere in 2018. In 2012, the Heliophysics Division also plans to continue operating 26 spacecraft already in orbit gathering data on the sun and its impact on Earth.

Sun scientists attribute strong support for their division, in part, to the year-old Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). In addition to producing a steady stream of vivid images, SDO is providing scientists with a wealth of data on the sun’s interior, its magnetic field and its outer atmosphere or corona. “We have learned revolutionary things about solar flares and coronal mass ejections from SDO,” said Alan Title, senior fellow at Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto, Calif., and principal investigator for SDO’s Atmospheric Imaging Assembly. “I would hope people realize it would be prudent to make additional, targeted investments in heliophysics.”

Those flares and coronal mass ejections can send waves of charged particles toward Earth, harming satellites, disrupting power lines and interfering with air travel. “We have a technologically sophisticated society,” Fisher said. “Things we depend on have some vulnerability to the conditions of space weather.” Growing public awareness of that vulnerability may help sustain heliophysics funding even as pressures mount to reduce overall federal spending, heliophysics researchers said.

Nevertheless, the Heliophysics Division is not immune to budget pressures. Rising rocket costs may force sun scientists to scale back plans for missions later in the decade, including the Solar Orbiter, a collaborative mission involving NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). The conclusion of the space shuttle program and uncertain demand for rockets have led to a significant increase in the anticipated cost of the expendable launch vehicles NASA relies on to carry many large satellites into orbit.

ESA officials have not made a final decision to continue development of the Solar Orbiter. It is one of three missions being evaluated as part of ESA’s Cosmic Visions science program. In November, ESA officials are scheduled to select two of the three missions for launches in 2017 and 2018.

For the Solar Orbiter, ESA plans to supply the spacecraft, ground segment and most instruments, while NASA would provide the launch vehicle and additional instrumentation, Fisher said. Rising launch costs may force NASA to reduce the number of instruments it can provide, resulting in a 10 to 15 percent reduction in the total scientific capability of the spacecraft. That action, however, would not undermine the overall integrity of the mission or prevent it from achieving its scientific goals, Fisher said.

In 2018, NASA officials are hoping to launch the Solar Probe Plus, a high-profile mission to the sun’s outer atmosphere. As part of that mission, NASA plans to send a spacecraft built by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., and equipped with five instruments closer to the sun than any previous satellite to obtain imagery and data designed to help scientists study the corona and solar winds.

In the near term, NASA’s sun scientists are focusing on a series of smaller missions. In May 2012, NASA plans to launch the two-spacecraft Radiation Belt Storm Probes into the field of charged particles around Earth that pose a danger to spacecraft electronics and astronaut safety.

In December 2012, NASA is scheduled to launch a solar telescope and spectrograph to study the solar chromospheres and transition region. That mission, known as the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), draws heavily on flight hardware left over from previous missions, including cameras and electronics developed for SDO. Most of the IRIS flight hardware already is in place at Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Laboratory. “Barring any unforeseen difficulties,” the spacecraft will be ready for launch into polar orbit in December 2012, said Title, who serves as principal investigator for IRIS, one of NASA’s Small Explorer missions.


Pinch-hitting on MMS

In contrast, sun scientists are just beginning to build the flight hardware for the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission, which will employ four spacecraft with identical instruments flying in formation to make coordinated observations of magnetic reconnection, the process that occurs when tangled magnetic fields cross, merge and break apart to release bursts of energy. The MMS mission, led by the Southwest Research Institute of San Antonio, is scheduled for launch in August 2014.

NASA budget documents sent to Congress in February note a change in MMS responsibilities. Initially, the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm was tasked to build the deployment mechanism for the MMS sensor suite. In January 2010, when it became apparent that the Swedish team would not be able to complete development of the mechanism on schedule, the job was transferred to scientists at the University of New Hampshire who already were building MMS sensors and electronics. The Swedish team will continue to play an important role in testing the mechanism, known as the Spin-Plane Double Probe, said university spokesman David Sims.

Still, the change in responsibilities presented unique challenges for University of New Hampshire team members. Even before the deployment mechanism was added to the contract, the MMS project was the largest spaceflight hardware effort ever undertaken by university officials, Sims said. With the addition of the Spin-Plane Double Probe, the team faced the added challenge of turning a laboratory prototype into a design for fully qualified space hardware within 10 months. That effort was successfully completed when the team passed its critical design review in December, Sims said.



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