SAN FRANCISCO — There is growing recognition within the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security of the importance of studying, predicting and monitoring solar activity. That does not mean, however, that heliophysics researchers can anticipate increased funding for their activities, according to Barbara Giles, Heliophysics Division director in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

“We should expect budgets for coming years to reflect the fiscal environment,” Giles said Dec. 6 during the Space Physics and Aeronomy town hall meeting at the American Geophysical Union conference here. “These will be challenging years.”

The U.S. Congress passed budgets for NASA’s Heliophysics Division of $589.4 million in 2011 and $622 million in 2012. Division leaders anticipate funding of $632.4 million in 2013 and $650.6 million in 2014. Overall, budgets are expected to rise only enough to account for inflation, Giles said.

With that money, the Heliophysics Division will conduct research and missions designed to improve understanding of the sun and its interactions with Earth and the solar system. In September 2012, NASA plans to launch the Radiation Belt Storm Probes, a mission that includes twin satellites to gather data on charged particles around Earth that pose a danger to spacecraft electronics. Engineers at the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., completed construction of the spacecraft and began environmental tests of instruments in early December. Those tests are scheduled to be completed in March.

The division also is girding for two ambitious flagship missions: the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission to improve understanding of the physics of the electronic diffusion region and reconnection, and Solar Probe Plus, a campaign to study the sun’s outer atmosphere.

NASA officials will begin integration and testing of MMS flight units in 2012, a process that is expected to pose challenges because the mission includes four spacecraft featuring identical instruments to study magnetic reconnection, which occurs when tangled magnetic fields cross, merge and break apart, releasing energy, Giles said. The MMS mission, led by the Southwest Research Institute of San Antonio, is scheduled to be ready to launch in August 2014 but lift off no later than March 2015, she added.

Solar Probe Plus, which features five instruments on a spacecraft built by the Applied Physics Laboratory, is designed to fly closer to the sun than previous satellites. That mission poses significant cost, schedule and technical challenges, Giles said. NASA officials will evaluate the Solar Probe Plus design at space agency headquarters in January, she said. The mission is slated to launch in 2018.

Upcoming NASA Heliophysics Missions

  • Radiation Belt Storm Probes: Launch September 2012
  • Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph: Launch no later than June 2013
  • Magnetospheric Multiscale mission: Ready to launch by August 2014; liftoff by March 2015
  • Solar Probe Plus: 2018 launch (under review)’

NASA also is working with the European Space Agency on the Solar Orbiter, scheduled to fly in 2017. Europe’s space science decision-making body, the Science Program Committee, approved plans for the Solar Orbiter in October. According to a memorandum signed by mission partners, ESA will provide the spacecraft, ground segment and most instruments while NASA will contribute additional instruments and the launch vehicle. Rising launch costs, however, are forcing mission partners to cut in half the number of instruments the spacecraft will carry. “Due to a significant increase in launch costs, we had to descope two of the four instruments,” Giles said. “Some European states are seeking to support those instruments through other means.”

NASA’s Heliophysics Division is preparing for a 2013 launch of the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), a NASA Small Explorer mission to send a solar telescope and spectrograph to study the solar chromospheres and transition region. NASA officials will conduct an IRIS launch readiness review in late 2012 and the mission is scheduled to fly no later than June 2013, Giles said.

In March or April, the National Research Council is scheduled to release a space and solar physics decadal survey, Giles said. That document will help NASA’s heliophysics leaders plan future missions including the next solar terrestrial probes, she added.

Speaking at the same forum, Richard Behnke, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Geospace Section, said NSF will continue to devote funding to space weather and atmospheric research, including additional money for cubesats, which measure 10 centimeters on a side. NSF has provided funding for six cubesats including two currently in orbit.

The first NSF cubesat mission — launched in November 2010 — was the Radio Aurora Explorer, a project designed by the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and SRI International of Menlo Park, Calif., to study how plasma in the upper atmosphere disrupts signals traveling between orbiting spacecraft and ground stations. A second mission, Dynamic Ionosphere Cubesat Experiment (DICE), is a two-satellite experiment built by Utah State University and Advanced Science & Technology Research Associates LLC of San Antonio to gather data on geomagnetic storms. DICE traveled into orbit Oct. 28 alongside NASA’s National Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project.

In addition, NSF is establishing a pilot program, Creative Research Awards for Transformative Interdisciplinary Ventures (CREATIV), to encourage scientists to propose innovative, bold projects capable of being completed in five years with funding of $1 million or less, Behnke said. Through the CREATIV program, NSF officials are seeking to address concerns that the organization does not support projects that divert from the mainstream. CREATIV will allow researchers to take more risks, he said.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...