NASA Subcommittee Reviews Missions, Budget

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Publication date: 
10 October 2008

NASA’s Heliophysics Subcommittee, chaired by Alan Title, a solar physicist at the Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center, recently met in the nation’s capitol to discuss a range of issues including mission updates and budget constraints. The subcommittee is one of five under the Science Committee in NASA’s Advisory Council (NAC) which is part of the Science Mission Directorate (SMD).

Title began the first day’s proceedings by delivering news from the NAC, and adding that Jack Burns, a Professor in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado would be the new chairman of the Science Committee of the NAC. According to Title, Burns “intends to ask the science subcommittees for white papers for the next administration’s transition team.” NAC Chairman Harrison Schmitt is planning on delivering the recommendations of all six NAC committees to the next Administrator.

The meeting continued with a flight program status review by the Deputy Director of the Heliophysics Division, Victoria Elsbernd. Elsbernd explained the timeline of future launches, saying that the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) satellite had “successfully made it to Pegasus” and is on schedule for an October 19 launch. While the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) is set to launch on January 26, 2010, fleet wide issues with the Russian built RD-180 rocket engine could affect that date. Elsbernd added that SDO could be moved up to June 2009 if any other scheduled launch “slips out.” “Except budget,” Elsbernd said that in summary, there were “no show stoppers.”

Following the program status update, members of the subcommittee participated in a round-robin discussion of important research or events in their respective areas of study. Topics discussed included the rotational modulation of Saturn’s magnetosphere and attempts to characterize the solar minimum. One subcommittee member suggested that there was chatter in the scientific community that the Payload for Antimatter Exploration and Light-nuclei Astrophysics (PAMELA) satellite had detected antiprotons, although no official news has been released.

Discussion then turned to the feasibility of mining helium-3 from the moon. According to one subcommittee member, 20 tons of helium-3 would power the U.S. for one year. A one square kilometer by three meter deep area on the moon would yield one kilogram of helium-3. Other subcommittee members seemed skeptical.

Later in the day, Mary Mellott, Discipline Scientist for Geospace Science at NASA summarized the review of proposals submitted to the Small Explorers (SMEX) program. As the SMEX competition was still in progress, details of individual programs could not be discussed. A total of 32 compliant SMEX proposals were received. Approximately half were in heliophysics, and half in astrophysics.

With the Fast Auroral SnapshoT Explorer (FAST) mission scheduled for termination in March 2009, there is concern in the scientific community about losing the only NASA-supported asset that probes the auroral and dayside cusp acceleration regions. R. J. Strangeway presented an argument to the subcommittee that FAST’s mission can continue with limited additional funding. According to Strangeway, “after more than 12 years in orbit, FAST remains nearly fully operational.” Strangeway argued that reductions in science support would bring costs down below $1 million.

Day two of the meeting featured a discussion lead by Edward Weiler, Director of the Goddard Space Flight Center. Weiler prefaced his talk by saying that the “heliophysics division, not unlike the Marine Corps, is looking for a few good women and men.” Weiler said that “we are at an awkward time at the present time,” referring to the decommissioning of the space shuttle. According to Weiler, NASA needs access to space on a flexible timeline, and “there is a commercial market for a launcher.”

Weiler’s comments were mostly about budget uncertainty. Saying that he was impressed with the communitie’s work under tight fiscal constraints, Weiler added jokingly, “I would be distressed if I were a planetary scientist today.”

The subcommittee considered on the final day what information should be included in their white paper for the next presidential transition team and decided if they should make a recommendation to prolong FASTs mission. Instead of listing specific information that should be included in their report, the subcommittee agreed on various criteria. This included information that would emphasize the fundamental science being done by heliophysics, habitability issues, interagency space programs, the importance of the Sun-Earth connection, and climate change.

FAST was asked by the subcommittee to provide additional information that was not available at the projects Senior Review that would argue for extending the mission and receiving necessary funds. The subcommittee quickly came to a consensus that the FAST team had not provided that information. One moment that seemed to emphasize the subcommittee’s frustration came when Title said, “It would have been nice if we could ask if there is new anomalous data.” Several members of the committee immediately and simultaneously said, “We did!”

The next meeting of the Heliophysics Subcommittee will be the week of January 26, 2009 in Washington, DC.

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