Written by Alexa Halford

There are a number of rhythms in life: every 17 years in the DC area BroodX of the cicadas come out, every 11 years the Sun becomes more active, and every 10 years the heliophysics community comes together to determine what direction we would like to go for the next decade. This is part of the Decadal Survey process in which a committee organized by the National Academies convenes, solicits input from the community, and writes a roadmap for the next 10 years. In order to help the community start thinking big and outside the box, NASA put together a workshop called Helio2050. It was here that we were asked to identify the big science questions we hope to address, not just in the next 10 years, but the next 30 — what will the scientists just born today be studying?   

So first let’s look back 30 years ago, or even 60 years ago, and see what happened that really pushed the field forward. 

Heliophysics in 1961 


In 1961 Ham the Chimp flew in space, Barbie got a boyfriend named Ken, and we were just starting to explore in space. Just a few years prior Explorer 1 launched and we discovered that Earth has belts of radiation around it. We had just had the international geophysical year, 1957, which helped lead to a new infrastructure that enabled many advances within heliophysics through the expansion of ground-based instrumentation.  


Increased instrumentation 


The advent of larger global ground-based instrument networks led our field to be able to start putting together a more complete picture surrounding space physics. We were able to start diving into the idea that the Northern and Southern Hemispheres were at times quite a bit different and that our magnetic field was intrinsically asymmetric. With satellites now going into space and taking measurements in situ, we were able to start testing many theories that we had previously only been able to infer (e.g. energy of the particles inside the radiation belts). The increase of both ground- and space-based instruments propelled the field of space physics forward significantly in the following thirty years.  


Computation coming to the sciences 


This time period also saw the rise of scientific computing and supercomputers. Computers had been around for a while, but during these 30 years, computers were becoming more accessible and usable by graduate students and researchers alike. However, most theses were still typed on a typewriter and computational models were much smaller than the ones we use today.  


Heliophysics in 1991 


In 1991 the Hubble telescope was launched, Nirvana’s “Teen Spirit” was topping the charts (or at least some of them), and satellites and supercomputers had become standard tools for weather forecasting. Thirty years ago, we did not yet have a dedicated solar wind monitor or the large numbers of satellites that we have today. However, what changed in the last thirty years that enabled new discoveries in heliophysics?  

Open data policies  


One significant change in the last thirty years was a new NASA policy stating that data from any NASA-funded mission must be made public. Before this, there was no obligation to share data. This change meant that scientists beyond the instrument teams — and their immediate friends and colleagues — were now able to access the data, analyze it, and thereby further our scientific understanding.  

New constellation missions 


As our field has grown, there have been more and more opportunities for spacecraft launches. Additionally, between 1991 and 2021 we saw an increase in the number of missions and in the number of satellites in each mission. For example, CRRES was a mission to study the radiation belts; it had one satellite and was active from 1990 to 1991. The Van Allen Probes, the next mission dedicated to studying the radiation belts, were active from 2012 to 2019 and had two satellites, which enabled us to better understand the scale size of many radiation belt dynamics. THEMIS had perhaps the most satellites in its constellation with five, two of which later broke away from the other three to orbit the Moon. In the 2013 decadal survey, the MagCon concept was suggested, which would include tens of satellites spaced to help determine and understand global scale structures within the magnetosphere. Data from constellations like these have helped enable us to see a larger picture of how the magnetosphere responds to storms and dynamics from the solar wind.  

Advent of high-power computing 


 High power computing (HPC) was rare in the ‘80s and early ‘90s but vital to help us model and forecast complex systems. Additionally, in our phones today most of us have access to the kind of computational capabilities that would have been considered high power in the ‘80s. However, unlike in the ‘80s, our current supercomputers and HPC are more broadly accessible across the academic world and the research community — and the idea of typing a PhD thesis on a typewriter is unthinkable. The increased access to HPC has enabled the development of large codes, whether global models of our magnetosphere, high spatial and temporal models of regions where we track millions and millions of particles, or ensemble models used for forecasting space weather events. It is not just the access to these computers to run these models that is a significant advance, but the fact that they can run large models much more quickly and frequently, allowing for more virtual experiments to be completed efficiently. As our measurements in space are still sparse, the ability to run multiple models with varying conditions to compare with and help inform observations has improved our understanding of space physics phenomena and what regions and measurements new missions should target.  

Larger more diverse collaborations


In the last thirty years, we have seen large groups come and go, and each time we have brought people together, we see a lasting advancement within our field. For example, the Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling trained many students and helped push global magnetospheric models forward. Today we see a continuation of summer schools focused on space physics, more researchers looking to understand a larger view of the space environment, and a continued push for more interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research projects. 

Along these lines, NASA put out a call for DRIVE centers focused on providing a way for large groups to focus time and resources to answer outstanding science questions. CUSIA is one such center that aims to understand how asymmetries impact our space environment: asymmetries within the Earth’s magnetic field, asymmetries within drivers of space weather, and asymmetries between the hemispheres of Earth. CUSIA is also dedicated to mitigating asymmetries within the culture of heliophysics by bringing together a diverse set of researchers to address these pressing scientific issues.  

Heliophysics in 2051 


So what will change in the next thirty years? I am sure we cannot predict all that will be discovered. However, we can take a look at our current road maps going forward. NASA plans to return humans to the Moon and potentially send the first humans to Mars within the next thirty years. What we will learn from these expeditions is beyond much of our imagination. However, we know that to help reach these goals, we must work diligently towards understanding our space environment both here at Earth and at these other planetary bodies.   

Along the same lines and a bit closer to home, many have dreamed of space tourism. Billionaires are currently making plans to venture into low Earth orbit. While this may be out of reach for many vacationers, the industry is looking to bring more people to space in the coming years. Today people travel to see the aurora, one of space weather’s visible impacts, whether it is to the hot springs of Iceland or on flights out of Melbourne, Australia.   

If space tourism becomes a reality, more people may be interested in checking out a daily space weather forecast. With these aspirations, it is even more critical that we learn about the Earth space environment and expand our knowledge and understanding of its invisible risks. How we determine these invisible risks and improve our overall understanding is likely to look different as well. Within the last twenty years, there has been increased development of miniaturized instruments, SmallSats, and CubeSats. These developments will likely continue to evolve during the next 30 years. 

In addition to the miniaturization of instruments we have seen tools and methods start to change. We will likely always use HPC, but with the addition of other techniques like assimilative modeling, which uses observational data to help push a model to the “more correct” solution. As it becomes easier and easier for models to run it is likely that ensemble modeling, a technique which runs either many models or the same model with slightly different inputs to get a better prediction, will become more common.  


Helio2050 workshop and beyond 


To start planning the research roadmap for the next 10-30 years, NASA held a workshop focused on what heliophysics could look like in 2050. Many from CUSIA participated and added contributions to this vision. Most of our contributions looked at unanswered science questions, called for more interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary science, new technology, and better progress-tracking capability, and examined ways to improve the culture of our community. In the coming weeks, we will highlight our involvement in Helio2050 and how you can get involved with the white papers we are developing for the decadal survey.   


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