Scientists set bold plan for future exploration of the Sun

Greater understanding of space weather and impact on Earth among key goals for next 10 years

Our understanding of space weather and the impact of space around Earth has greatly increased in the last 10 years and if the ambitious plan the National Research Council can be implemented, the next 10 years will generate tons more scientific insight.

The National Research Council issued its second research recommendation report, "Solar and Space Physics: A Science for a Technological Society," which represents 18 months of research by more than 85 solar and space physicists and space system engineers and lays out major scientific goals for solar exploration on the next 10 years. 

RELATED: What's up with these solar storms?

The council's report lists four overarching goals and challenges.  From the report they include: 

  • Determine the origins of the Sun's activity and predict the variations in 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.

There are missions planned that being to address some of these goals including the Radiation Belt Storm Probes which are expected to launch on August 23rd and are expected to fly through the heavy radiation known as Van Allen radiation belts that surround Earth to determine the mechanisms that control the energy, intensity, spatial distribution, and time variability of the belts.

Another mission, the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) is slated for launch in January 2013 and is expected to "deliver pioneering observations of chromospheric dynamics just above the solar surface to help determine their role in the origin of the heat and mass fluxes into the corona and wind," the council stated.   A more ambitious mission, NASA's four satellite Magnetospheric Multiscale mission (MMS) is slated for 2014 to further explore heliophysics.

MORE: NASA's Voyager spacecraft could be close to breaking free of our solar system

Other future programs cited by the council's report include:

  • Solar Orbiter (European Space Agency-NASA partnership, 2017 launch) will investigate links between the solar surface, corona, and inner heliosphere from as close as 62 solar radii.
  • Solar Probe Plus (2018 launch) will make mankind's first visit to the solar corona to discover how the corona is heated, how the solar wind is accelerated, and how the Sun accelerates particles to high energy.

The study went to say that NASA should also accelerate and expand the Heliophysics Explorer program, which provides frequent flight opportunities to enable the definition, development, and implementation of mission concepts. 

"Augmenting the current program by $70 million per year, in fiscal year 2012 dollars, will restore the option of mid-size Explorers, allowing them to alternate with small Explorers every 2 to 3 years.  As part of the augmented Explorer program, NASA should support regular selections of "Missions of Opportunity," which allow the research community to respond quickly and to leverage limited resources with interagency, international, and commercial flight partnerships.  For relatively modest investments, such opportunities can potentially address high-priority science aims identified in this survey," the council stated.

"New moderate- and large-class missions later in the decade would investigate space physics at the edge of the heliosphere where the sun's influence wanes, the effects of processes in Earth's lower atmosphere on conditions in space, fundamental questions related to the creation and transport of plasma in Earth's ionosphere and magnetosphere, and how the Earth responds globally to magnetic storms from the sun," the report says.

"The proposed strategy directed at NSF, NASA, and also NOAA is one that recognizes the increased societal importance of solar and space physics, and how important it is to tackle these new opportunities with a diverse set of tools -- from miniature satellites like cubesats to moderate and large missions," said Thomas Zurbuchen, a professor and associate dean for entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan's College of Engineering and vice chair of the study committee in a statement.

The group's first solar and space physics survey issued in 2003 led to some of the most significant research and discoveries of our solar system including:

  • New insights, gained from novel observations and advances in theory, modeling, and computation, into the variability of the mechanisms that generate the Sun's magnetic field, and into the structure of that field;
  • A new understanding of the unexpectedly deep minimum in solar activity;
  • Significant progress in understanding the origin and evolution of the solar wind;
  • Striking advances in understanding both explosive solar flares and the coronal mass ejections that drive space weather;
  • Groundbreaking discoveries about the surprising nature of the boundary between the heliosphere-that is, the immense magnetic bubble containing our solar system-and the surrounding interstellar medium;
  • New imaging methods that permit researchers to directly observe space weather-driven changes in the particles and magnetic fields surrounding Earth;
  • Significantly deeper knowledge of the numerous processes involved in the acceleration and loss of particles in Earth's radiation belts;
  • Major advances in understanding the structure, dynamics, and linkages in other planetary magnetospheres, especially those of Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn;
  • New understanding of how oxygen from Earth's own atmosphere contributes to space storms.

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