Decadal Report on Solar and Space Physics

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Publication date: 
17 September 2012

The National Academy of Sciences released a report, “Solar and Space Physics: A Science for a  Technological Society,” outlining priorities for the coming decade in solar  and space physics.  This report, released  in August, is the second National Research Council (NRC) decadal survey in  heliophysics.  The summary section of the  report states:

“The  report presents a program of basic and applied research for the period  2013-2022 that will improve scientific understanding of the mechanisms that  drive the Sun’s activity and the fundamental physical processes underlying  near-Earth plasma dynamics, determine the physical interactions of Earth’s  atmospheric layers in the context of the connected Sun-Earth system, and  enhance greatly the capability to provide realistic and specific forecasts of  Earth’s space environment that will better serve the needs of society.”

The survey was supported by the National Aeronautics and Space  Administration (NASA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).  Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado  chaired the committee that wrote the report.   Thomas Zurbuchen of the University of Michigan was vice chair of the  committee.  The report was prepared under  the auspices of the Space Studies Board’s Division on Engineering and Physical  Sciences. 

The NRC reviewed and reflected upon past and present  accomplishments in solar and space physics in addition to outlining four  overarching goals that guided the Committee’s recommendations:

  • “Determine  the origins of the Sun’s activity and predict the variations of the space  environment.”
  • “Determine  the dynamics and coupling of Earth’s magnetosphere, ionosphere, and atmosphere  and their response to solar and terrestrial inputs.”
  • “Determine  the interaction of the Sun with the solar system and the interstellar medium.”
  • “Discover  and characterize fundamental processes that occur both within the heliosphere  and throughout the universe.” 


The report recommendations are directed primarily to NASA’s  Science Mission Directorate Heliophysics Division and the NSF’s Directorate for  Geosciences Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences.  The report also recommends actions by other  federal agencies, particularly regarding the National Oceanic and Atmospheric  Administration’s (NOAA) operational forecasting of space weather.

To achieve the goals laid out in this report the committee  recommends adherence to the following guiding principles:

  • “To make  transformational scientific progress, the Sun, Earth, and heliosphere must be  studied as a coupled system;
  • To  understand the coupled system requires that each subdiscipline be able to make  measurable advances in achieving its key science goals; and
  • Success  across the entire field requires that the various elements of solar and space  physics research programs—the enabling foundation comprising theory, modeling,  data analysis, innovation, and education, as well as ground-based facilities  and small-, medium-, and large-class space missions—be deployed with careful  attention both to the mix of assets and to the schedule (cadence) that  optimizes their utility over time.”


The report outlines the following  research recommendations:

  • “The survey committee’s recommended program for NSF and NASA assumes  continued support in the near term for the key existing program elements that  constitute the Heliophysics Systems Observatory and successful implementation  of programs in advanced stages of development.”
  • “The survey committee recommends implementation of a new, integrated,  multiagency initiative (DRIVE—Diversify, Realize, Integrate, Venture, Educate)  that will develop more fully and employ more effectively the many experimental  and theoretical assets at NASA, NSF, and other agencies.”
  • “The survey committee recommends that NASA accelerate and expand the  Heliophysics Explorer program. Augmenting the current program by $70 million  per year, in fiscal year 2012 dollars, will restore the option of Mid-size  Explorer missions and allow them to be offered alternately with Small Explore missions  every 2 to 3 years. As part of the augmented Explorer program, NASA should  support regular selections of Missions of Opportunity.”
  • “The survey committee recommends that NASA’s Solar-Terrestrial Probes  program be restructured as a moderate-scale, competed,  principal-investigator-led mission line that is cost-capped at $520 million per  mission in fiscal year 2012 dollars including full life-cycle costs.”
  • “The survey committee recommends that, following the launch of RBSP and  SPP, the next Living With a Star science target focus on how Earth’s atmosphere  absorbs solar wind energy. The recommended reference mission is Geospace  Dynamics Constellation (GDC).”

The report  also describes applications recommendations for enabling effective space  weather and climatology capabilities:

  • “Recharter the National Space Weather Program - The survey committee  recommends that, to coordinate the development of this plan, the National Space  Weather Program should be rechartered under the auspices of the National  Science and Technology Council and should include the active participation of  the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management and  Budget. The plan should build on current agency efforts, leverage the new  capabilities and knowledge that will arise from implementation of the programs  recommended in this report, and develop additional capabilities, on the ground  and in space, that are specifically tailored to space weather monitoring and  prediction.”
  • “Work in a multi-agency partnership to achieve continuity of solar and  solar wind observations - The survey committee recommends that NASA, NOAA, and  the Department of Defense work in partnership to plan for continuity of solar  and solar wind observations beyond the lifetimes of ACE, SOHO, STEREO, and  SDO.”

The report also describes decision rules  recommended by the Committee in the event that resources need to be reduced and  reallocated over the coming decade.   Similarly, the committee highlights augmentation priorities in the event  that the solar and space physics community budget is increased in the event of  a more favorable budgetary environment. 

    A copy of the prepublication version of  this report is available here.