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Budget Heat Prompts Call for Revising NASA’s Heliophysics Roadmap

NASA expects to find out this spring how much one of the biggest science missions on the agency’s plate, Solar Probe Plus, will cost to build and launch. Credit: NASA artist's concept

SAN FRANCISCO — If NASA does not revise plans for its largest heliophysics missions, many of those programs are likely to begin years later and take far longer to reach the launch pad than currently scheduled.

That was the conclusion of a NASA panel assigned to find ways to implement recommendations of the National Research Council’s 10-year plan for NASA’s Heliophysics Division, “Solar and Space Physics: A Science for a Technological Society,” issued in August 2012.

The Roadmap Committee, convened by the heliophysics subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council, produced a blueprint for completing the space agency’s current heliophysics program in light of budget forecasts and recommendations of the decadal survey. The result is “a strategic program that is drawn out in a way that is acceptable to no one,” Ed DeLuca, Roadmap Committee chairman, said Dec. 10 during the American Geophysical Union’s annual conference here.

If NASA were to follow the blueprint, for example, the Geospace Dynamics Constellation, a Living with a Star initiative to investigate the impact of the sun on Earth’s upper atmosphere, ionosphere and magnetosphere, would begin in 2023 instead of 2017 as envisioned by the decadal survey’s authors. That timeline would produce a lengthy gap in Living with a Star missions. “If you conduct a Living with a Star mission once every ten or 15 years, you don’t have a Living with a Star program; it doesn’t exist,” DeLuca said. Similarly, future Solar Terrestrial Probe missions would face delays unless the heliophysics mission plan is revised.  

The Roadmap Committee did not have the authority to suggest changes to the size and scope of individual missions. Those discussions will have to take place within the heliophysics community, DeLuca said.

When the decadal survey was produced, members of the panel writing recommendations anticipated annual funding for the NASA heliophysics program of approximately $600 million a year. Instead, the division received $589.7 million in 2013 due to across-the-board federal spending cuts, said Dave Chenette, director of NASA’s Heliophysics Division. 

“Our task will be to do the best science we can within the budget we expect to be receiving, which is more flat than rising,” Chenette said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that is going to push some of these missions out.”

To make better use of limited funding, the Roadmap Committee recommended development of technology to produce scientifically useful small satellites and cubesats. “The goal here is to spend more on instrumentation and science, and less on launch vehicles and putting things into orbit,” DeLuca said.

Meanwhile, NASA expects to find out this spring how much one of the biggest science missions on the agency’s plate, Solar Probe Plus, will cost to build and launch. Preliminary estimates range from $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion and assume a July 2018 launch. The spacecraft’s preliminary design review (PDR) is slated for January with a confirmation review to follow in March.

“Solar probe plus is the big swinger in our future plans,” Chenette said. “This is the mission that will fly to less than 10 solar radii. Next year is important. Right now its in PDR season for instruments. There will be a spacecraft PDR in January. Shortly thereafter is Key Decision Point C where we will establish cost, schedule and [the] plan for completing Solar Probe Plus. Getting that right is really important to the future of heliophysics. We have to make a plan to accomplish it within the budget [and then] carry out that plan.”

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