Solar and space scientists tapped to guide heliophysics into the next decade


Solar and space scientists tapped to guide heliophysics into the next decade

An X1.0 class solar flare flashes on the left edge of the Sun on January 10, 2023. This image was captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory and shows a blend of light from the 304 and 131 angstrom wavelengths. Credit:NASA/GSFC/SDO

Seven University of Colorado Boulder scientists have been selected to contribute their expertise to the Decadal Survey for Solar and Space Physics (Heliophysics) 2024-2033. Additionally, for the first time, a team from the Laboratory for Space and Atmospheric Physics (LASP) at CU Boulder has led a large mission concept study, which will be reviewed during the survey.

Every 10 years, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) are required to assess the performance of each National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) science division and, most importantly, plan for the next decade. During these decadal surveys, panels of scientists are invited by NASEM to volunteer their time to review basic and applied research to advance scientific understanding of their field and set priorities for the future, including in-depth assessments of potential future missions.

This is the third heliophysics decadal survey; heliophysics encompasses research on the Sun, Sun-Earth connections, the origins of space weather, the Sun’s interactions with other bodies in the solar system, the interplanetary medium, and the interstellar medium.

Expertise in Heliophysics

Four of the seven scientists are LASP-affiliated, including senior research scientist Fran Bagenal, who has been named to the steering committee that oversees the decadal survey. Bagenal is assistant director of LASP’s Planetary Science Group and leads a research group that studies the magnetospheres of the outer planets. She was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 2021.

“This process is really driven by the science and by the community,” Bagenal said. “We will be asking: What are the top scientific priorities? What are the really big unanswered questions?”

Bagenal is also a liaison to the Panel on the State of the Profession, one of the survey’s five study panels. That panel is tasked with providing an overview of the current state of the profession in solar and space physics and will work to develop a better understanding of the field’s demographics, career pathways, and ways to improve the culture and climate of the work environment.

LASP research scientist Katelynn Greer was selected as a member of the Panel on the Physics of Ionospheres, Thermospheres, and Mesospheres. “The decadal survey is critical for the scientific community because it communicates the priorities and needs of our discipline to various funding agencies, including NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for the next 10 years,” Greer said.

Lauren Blum, a LASP researcher and assistant professor in the department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences, was selected as a member of the Panel on the Physics of Magnetospheres. “The decadal survey shapes where the field of heliospheric science will go in the next 10 years—it’s a critical process for driving the field forward, assessing where progress has been made and where open questions remain,” Blum said. “It’s been an honor to be part of this process, to think broadly about what the outstanding science questions are and how best for the field to address them.”

Adam Kowalski, a LASP researcher and an assistant professor in the department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences with a joint appointment at the National Solar Observatory, was selected for the Panel on the Physics of the Sun and Heliosphere.

Other CU Boulder scientists selected include: Tomoko Matsuo, an associate professor in Aerospace Engineering Sciences and the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research (CCAR), who was named to the steering committee; Thomas Berger, executive director of the Space Weather Technology, Research and Education Center (SWx TREC), who was chosen to serve on the Panel on Space Weather Science and Applications; and Hazel Bain, a research scientist in the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) and the CIRES science lead for NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, who was also named to the space weather panel.

A Flurry of White Papers

When each panel convenes, they will discuss some of the nearly 500 white papers submitted by the solar and space physics community after a call for papers concluded last fall.

“Many members of the community, including many LASP scientists, spent a good deal of effort on preparing white papers to inform the Heliophysics Decadal Survey,” Greer said. “It is so exciting to read all about where we might be going in the next 10 years in terms of science, satellite missions, ground-based instrumentation, modeling, and new data analysis techniques.”

Blum added that “as a member of the Physics of Magnetospheres Panel, it has also been an eye-opening opportunity to read through all the white papers the community put together, discuss them with the other panel members, who represent a broad cross section of magnetospheric physics expertise, and pull out common themes regarding the direction in which our community would like our field to go.”

As part of the decadal survey, NASA also put out a competitive call for large, ambitious, long-term missions that will propel the field of heliophysics into the future. Some of these proposals were selected to receive funding to conduct a mission concept study, including, for the first time, one led by a team from LASP.

A PILOT Program

The concept study of the proposed mission—called the Plasma Imaging, LOcal measurement, and Tomographic experiment, or PILOT—was led by David Malaspina, an assistant professor in the Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences department and a LASP research scientist. The PILOT design team included scientists and engineers from LASP, as well as the Space Science Institute, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, the Southwest Research Institute, Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, Boston University, and Advanced Space LLC.

The fundamental science goal of PILOT is to determine how mass and energy flow through Earth’s magnetosphere. The mission is designed to answer one of the fundamental questions in heliophysics: What role does a planet’s magnetic field play in retaining (or losing) its atmosphere?

It’s a sticky question to answer. The interactions of the solar wind with plasma flowing in and out of regions of Earth’s magnetosphere are complex. To understand them, scientists need to track how cold plasma moves into and through the donut-shaped region of the magnetosphere called the plasmasphere.

So far, individual satellites have only been able to take some measurements required to understand what’s happening in this region, and only at single points. All spacecraft operating in a plasma acquire a surface charge, which repels the very plasma it is trying to measure, making it difficult to gather the needed data.

“So the thing we’re trying to measure, the thing that carries all the mass out of the ionosphere through the magnetosphere and out to the solar wind, is more or less invisible to current measurements,” Malaspina said. Scientists have modeled the dynamics of the plasmasphere, but “we don’t know if the models contain all the right physics,” he added.

The PILOT mission would solve these issues by using a constellation of 34 satellites orbiting within Earth’s inner magnetosphere: 30 of the satellites would be the size of a mini-fridge and 4 would be larger, the size of a motorcycle. By broadcasting radio waves to each other, the constellation would create a mesh of observations that could give scientists a view of the whole region at once.

“We’re basically going to CT-scan the magnetosphere,” Malaspina said. “We’d be able to see the plasma move and watch the mass flow through the system in real time, which has never been done before.”

While the potential $1.7 billion PILOT mission will be considered during the survey, the survey panelists will not decide which missions will go forward. Rather, they will assess the pros and cons of each mission and prioritize them to help NASA decide which missions to pursue.

To learn more about the PILOT mission concept study and the decadal survey, join us for the next LASP Public Lecture: “At the Frontier of Space Exploration: PILOT and the Decadal Survey.” The lecture will be presented by David Malaspina on Wed., March 1, 2023, from 7:30-8:30 PM (MT) in person on CU Boulder’s East Campus in LASP’s Space Science building room W120 and online at

Written by Sara Pratt, LASP Senior Communications Specialist

Founded a decade before NASA, the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder is on a mission to transform human understanding of the cosmos by pioneering new technologies and approaches to space science. LASP, the university’s oldest and highest-budget research institute, is the only academic research institute in the world to have sent instruments to every planet in our solar system. LASP will be celebrating its 75th anniversary beginning in April 2023.

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