The House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee held a November 28 hearing to discuss the work being performed by the National Aeronautic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NASA) Heliophysics Division, focusing on operational aspects of this research and how it affects space weather research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). During this hearing, Members of the subcommittee examined the requirements for a robust space-based solar and space physics research program and the recommendations outlined by the National Research Council’s decadal survey, “Solar and Space Physics: A Science for a Technological Society.”
Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS) acknowledged that “the availability of solar wind measurements in particular are essential for maintaining our way of life.” At the same time, he also recognized that the US currently faces “a tough budget environment [and] in order to continue a robust solar and space physics program, a prudent and careful examination of the core capabilities and essential services this country needs is first and foremost on our agenda.”
Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) mentioned “prominence eruptions” as examples of solar events that could have “impacts on ground- and space-based technological systems and services, such as GPS-related services, communications, aviation, the electric power grid, and pipelines.” She went on to highlight that “the Nation’s basic research programs have a direct bearing on protecting our nation’s critical infrastructure.” She supported the need for this research in her opening statement, stating that she “would be remiss if [she] did not mention the budgetary challenges for this research, which has such significant implications for our society. We need to protect these [research and development] investments. Our assets, our quality of life and our economic strength as a nation depend on this research.”
The panel of witnesses provided an overview of the decadal survey and highlighted some of the key recommendations that emerged from that survey. An FYI describing the recommendations in the decadal survey is available here.
Palazzo opened the round of questioning by asking NASA Deputy Associate Administrator Charles Gay for an update on the missions currently in development. Palazzo further inquired about mission risks and wanted to know how the current continuing budget resolution providing flat funding impacts NASA’s ability to keep its missions on track. Gay replied by stating that the IRIS Explorer Mission and the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission were on track for their respective launches. Regarding the Solar Probe Plus Mission, which is in Phase B, the phase during which technology is being developed and the system is being prepared for a critical design review, Gay described technical challenges faced by NASA. Specifically, he stated that due to this mission’s proximity of nine solar radii from the sun, thermal challenges are some of the greatest challenges of that mission. Regarding the question about the continuing resolution, Gay stated that NASA is currently operating under FY2012 levels. Guy seemed pleased that for heliophysics, this is very close to the President’s FY 2013 request.
Edwards focused her question on how NASA is planning to leverage the recommendations from the decadal survey given the uncertainty in the budget. Edwards specifically asked about the budget considerations regarding the recommendation for the expanded role of NASA in the post-Discovery era. Guy responded by stating that the decadal survey recommendations did consider the budget environment and highlighted the augmentations in the recommendations that were included in the survey that are based on the current tight fiscal climate. Edwards also wanted to know about the accuracy of the space weather forecast. Acting Director of NOAA’s National Weather Service Laura Furgione highlighted that the forecast accuracy is currently within a six hour window of time. Director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Daniel Baker mentioned that with the upcoming solar maximum, there will be opportunities to increase outreach and education of the general public on issues of space weather.
Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) was concerned about what platforms could be used to research space weather in order to minimize costs and become more efficient. His follow up questions also related to program costs. He asked witnesses about how the recommendation that the Solar Probe Plus mission be a principal investigator-led cost-capped competitive grant mission would ensure that the program was managed in a cost-effective way.
Both Palazzo and Edwards seemed to recognize a need to continue support for the US space weather program and wanted input from panelists about how to continue to support space weather measurement acquisition while taking into consideration the current fiscal challenges. Palazzo was interested to know how to support the space weather program in a way such that the program does not “end up like Landsat where everyone wants the data but no one wants to pay for it.”