Though space is about a thousand times emptier than even the best laboratory vacuums on Earth, it’s not completely devoid of matter – the sun’s constant outflow of solar wind fills space with a thin and tenuous wash of particles, fields, and plasma. This solar wind, along with other solar events like giant explosions called coronal mass ejections, influences the very nature of space and can interact with the magnetic systems of Earth and other worlds. Such effects also change the radiation environment through which our spacecraft – and, one day, our astronauts headed to Mars – travel. The space environment around Earth can also vary wildly in response not only to the Sun, but from upwelling atmospheric events from below. Such space weather can interfere with satellite electronics, radio communications and GPS signals, spacecraft orbits, and even – when extreme – power grids on Earth. Like our terrestrial weather, space weather can be extreme at times, but exists all the time. As such, it is important to understand space weather in order to predict and accommodate to it.
All of NASA's current Heliophysics missions contribute to a better understanding of the physical processes that drive the space environment around Earth and throughout the solar system. The image below depicts the current operating missions in the Heliophysics Fleet, and provides a rough depiction of their place in the solar system.
The Heliophysics Division Space Weather Science Application (SWxSA) initiative expands the role of NASA in space weather science under a single budget element and supports the multi-agency National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan. It competes ideas and products, leverages existing Agency capabilities, collaborates with other national and international agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), and partners with user communities to facilitate the effective transition of science knowledge to operational environments.
In 2019, thirteen research proposals were selected for the Heliophysics Space Weather Operations-to-Research (O2R) element, as part of the NASA Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Science (ROSES) program. This adds to a total of now thirty-nine funded investigations within O2R. These projects will help improve forecasts of the energetic proton and/or heavy ion conditions in the heliosphere due to solar eruptions.
The primary goal of this funding is to support research by the grant recipient to improve numerical models and/or data utilization techniques that could advance forecasting capabilities, and which could also lead to improved scientific understanding.
An important part of the strategic plan is to engage the commercial sector. This is accomplished in part through the Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR). Four space weather technology proposals were selected for Phase I in the SBIR program in 2019, and six more in 2020. Two were selected for Phase II in 2018. This brings the total funded SBIR Phase 1 proposals to ten and Phase 2 proposals to two. These efforts range from developing model techniques, tools to support space weather extremes, and measurement technologies to measure radiation levels aboard aircraft.
A further six investigations have been funded through the NSF-NASA joint SWQU call. This solicitation addresses the overlapping objectives of the National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan (NSW-SAP) and the National Strategic Computing Initiative (NSCI) Update through a pilot program. The goal of this pilot program is to transform the development of predictive modeling of the coupled evolution of the magnetized solar atmosphere and the solar wind, and their interaction with the Earth’s magnetosphere and upper atmosphere.
The NASA Heliophysics Division established the NASA Space Weather Council (SWC) in 2020 as a subcommittee to the Heliophysics Advisory Committee (HPAC). The SWC was established as a means to secure the counsel of community experts across diverse areas, on matters relevant to space weather in support of the NASA Heliophysics Division (HPD).
The SWC serves as a community-based, interdisciplinary forum for soliciting and coordinating community analysis and input and providing advice. It provides advice to the Heliophysics Advisory Committee (HPAC) of the NASA Heliophysics Division (HPD). The SWC will directly support the Heliophysics Division Space Weather Science Application (SWxSA) objectives.
NASA HPD is seeking information under this Request for Information (RFI) to assess community interest, concepts, and rough order of magnitude (ROM) cost for small complete missions, instrument suites, or single instruments, that if flown in space would directly address space weather science and/or observational needs. These instruments, suites, and missions could be flown as secondary payloads on rideshare missions or as hosted payloads on satellites or other platforms. Information collected through this RFI will support programmatic decisions regarding approaches for secondary or hosted payload opportunities on future Science Mission Directorate (SMD) Heliophysics launches or missions.
NASA heliophysics works as the research arm of the nation's space weather effort, coordinating with other federal agencies, including the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, on the National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan. In addition to research missions, NASA also supports improvements in space weather prediction models, such as those used by NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center, the U.S. government's official source for space weather forecasts.
The Heliophysics division is working closely with the Artemis Program to support the human exploration of deep space and on potential approaches to measure the radiation environment on and around the Moon. These measurements will aid in the prediction and validation of the radiation environment to which our astronauts will be subjected.
To this end, the Heliophysics Division is providing radiation and space weather instruments on the Lunar Gateway, an early key component of the Artemis Program. The selection of the Heliophysics Environmental and Radiation Measurement Experiment Suite (HERMES) was publicly announced in March 2020. The European Space Agency will also provide a radiation instrument package. In coordination with the Heliophysics two-spacecraft mission THEMIS/ARTEMIS already in lunar orbit, the Gateway observations will initiate a heliophysics lunar constellation to conduct science investigations not possible before. This payload will enable meaningful science, support Artemis, and be forward looking to crewed missions to Mars.