Solar and Space Physics at NSF

The assets across NSF for solar and space physics are significant. The Astronomy Division of the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences is the home of the National Solar Observatory, with ongoing synoptic observations and the ATST under construction, and of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which includes some solar researchers. The AGS Division of the Geosciences Directorate has championed the CubeSats program, arguably the most innovative development in spaceflight over the past decade. AGS is also the home of solar and space physics research at NSF, both in the Geospace Section and in the NCAR/Facilities Section at HAO, which also runs the Mauna Loa Solar Observatory. AGS has increased its responsibility for the Arecibo Radio Observatory, which remains the largest-aperture telescope in the world for astrophysical, planetary, and atmospheric studies. It has pioneered the utilization of hosted payloads through its involvement with Iridium and Iridium NEXT, serving as a model for NASA in that respect.

The 2010 astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey6 considered the future of NSF-supported solar research in view of its likely expansion in the ATST era. The current funding split, with the majority of grant funding coming from AGS and with the facilities funding divided between AGS and AST, was noted for being unusual and differing from the space-based solar research model. The 2010 report concluded that large facilities like the ATST would benefit from a more unified approach to how the two NSF divisions develop and support ground-based solar physics. It further encouraged NSF to work with the solar, heliospheric, stellar, planetary, and geospace communities to find a way to ensure a coordinated, balanced ground-based solar astronomy program able to maintain multidisciplinary ties. The relevance and importance of these recommendations have not diminished in the intervening time.

A more unified approach to solar and space physics at NSF would help establish the field as a professional discipline. The FDSS program also works in this direction, and the committee has emphasized in DRIVE “Educate” the need for NSF to make solar and space physics an officially recognized subdiscipline of physics and astronomy. Currently it is not listed as a dissertation research area within NSF’s Annual Survey of Earned Doctorates, an omission that influences other rankings, ratings, and the demographic surveys done by the National Research Council and the American Institute of Physics. Ultimately, recognition of solar and space physics as an official subdiscipline will enhance its visibility and the ability to recruit future space scientists.


A comprehensive investigation in solar and space physics cannot take place in isolation but should be part of an international effort, with different countries able to bring to bear unique geographic advantages, observing platforms, and expertise. The research community in the United States is poised to participate in and take advantage of a number of emerging international initiatives that could contribute to the fulfillment of the overall strategy recommended by the survey committee. For example, the international incoherent scatter radar consortium EISCAT is embarking on the EISCAT3D project, a very large, distributed, multistatic, transceiving array that will be able to measure ionospheric state variables in three dimensions through incoherent scatter. The technological, analytical, and logistical challenges that must be addressed to realize EISCAT3D are daunting but could be overcome more easily with the participation of U.S. researchers, who would benefit enormously from access to this prototypical instrument. Another example is the International Space Weather Meridian Circle Program headquartered in China. This ambitious program seeks to fully instrument the 120E and 60W meridian in order to provide a global picture of unfolding space weather


6 National Research Council, New Worlds, New Horizons, 2010.

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