Charting a Solar Physics Revival

NASA should resurrect plans to send a spacecraft into the solar atmosphere, according to a National Academy of Sciences panel that today unveiled the first-ever strategic plan for the next decade of solar and space physics. Its report recommends that NASA and other government agencies launch probes throughout the solar system to study the sun and its interaction with the planets and the interstellar medium.

The study--18 months in the making--offers a concrete set of priorities for solar research (see table). By and large, the 15-member panel endorsed NASA's current vision of a flotilla of spacecraft of various sizes, as well as a handful of ground-based efforts. But it urged the space agency to revive plans for a $650 million solar probe that will fly into the solar atmosphere to measure the sun's tumultuous plasmas, fields, and waves. Because of the project's cost and technological hurdles such as enduring temperatures of 2400 kelvin, NASA canceled the mission. "We're telling them to change course," says panel member James Burch, vice president of the Southwest Research Institute's Instrumentation and Space Research Division in San Antonio, Texas.

The panel, chaired by Lou Lanzerotti, a physicist at Lucent Technologies in Murray Hill, New Jersey, also puts a high priority on an as-yet-unfunded spacecraft, the Jupiter Polar Mission, that would study the interplay between the sun, Jupiter, and Jupiter's moons. The panel's plan includes other missions for which NASA does not yet have funding. But it will all "fit within the budget we think is going to be available," says Burch, from $400 million now to $650 million by 2008 and beyond.

The report should be good for solar science, says Michael Calabrese, a program manager at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who notes that a NASA-sponsored panel is working on a 25-year road map. "That way you get two looks," he says. In the meantime, the academy report gives NASA a way to lift missions out of the budgetary frying pan and into the solar fire.