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Where is Heliophysics Headed?

Seeing the Sun’s interactions with its planets, their atmospheres, and interplanetary space as a single dynamic system has rapidly deepened our understanding of how these interactions work. We will keep applying this knowledge to the practical goal of better space weather forecasts. Increasingly, heliophysics will also inform exploration of more existential questions – such as what Earth’s future climate will look like, or whether life exists on planets circling other stars. 

We asked scientists with the NASA Heliophysics Summer School what lies ahead for the science. 

Space weather forecasting will remain a strategic goal

Graphic of events of sun affecting Earth's magnetosphere

Artist illustration of events on the sun affecting Earth’s protective magnetosphere. Credit: NASA

Avoiding disruptive effects of severe space weather presents an ongoing critical challenge. One day heliophysics will afford us the ability to protect ourselves and our technologies from space weather, not only here on Earth, but far beyond as well. 

More space-based scientific instruments will be needed

Graphic of the Parker Solar Probe in the solar wind

Artist illustration of the Parker Solar Probe in the solar wind as it enters the Sun’s corona. The probe is part of the Heliophysics System Observatory (HSO), the fleet of satellites performing heliophysics science investigations. Credit: NASA

Sophisticated satellite-borne instruments are now capturing large amounts of data. However, better space weather modeling and forecasting will require even more data, and very likely, more “eyes” in space to collect it.

I suspect we will have to have another strategic plan which enlarges the observing assets… [We need] observing capabilities that enlarge simultaneous observations over time and space and begin to resolve ambiguities between those.

Dick Fisher

Former director of NASA Heliophysics Science Division

Advanced computing will play an even more critical role

Computer graphic of the solar wind interacting with Mars

This image from a computer simulation depicts the solar wind interacting with the Mars upper atmosphere. Credit: Greg Shirah, NASA Scientific Visualization Studio

Richer data will put increasingly refined constraints on computational models. This will make it possible to achieve far more realistic representations of complex space environments. Of course, such modeling will demand greater use of advanced computing technologies. 

Heliophysics will be used to understand other star-planet systems

Illustration of exoplanet Kepler-1649c could look like at surface

Artist illustration of what exoplanet Kepler-1649c could look like from its surface. Credit: NASA/Ames Research Center/Daniel Rutter

Comparing other star-planet systems to our own could provide tantalizing clues about past and future climate conditions on the Sun’s planets, including Earth.

Because we’re now seeing so many other planetary systems, we are learning a lot about the conditions that occurred here, in our own solar system… We can almost observe directly what will happen to our solar system planets by looking at other exoplanetary systems now.

Karel Schrijver

Solar physicist and former dean of the Heliophysics Summer School

Conversely, detailed knowledge of how the Sun influences Earth’s space environment will guide us as we evaluate the potential for life on a given exoplanet.

We also asked the scientists we interviewed about their hopes about the future of heliophysics education. Given the nature of heliophysics as a broadly integrated science, it was unsurprising that their comments had a similar theme; they wished to see even broader thinking, an even more inclusive community, and greater use of tools and software from outside the field.

Students should be encouraged to think broadly

Visualization of Earth surrounded by plasmapause and radiation belts

Visualization of Earth surrounded by plasmapause (blue-green surface) and radiation belts (multi-color). Credit: Tom Bridgman, NASA Scientific Visualization Studio

Approaching scientific questions from a multifaceted perspective is key for these young scientists. New Summer School students must “learn to think in each other’s language” to fully appreciate the connections in the Sun-Earth system, just as previous students did.

The community should welcome even more diversity

Photo of the women of the 2019 Helio summer school

Women of the 2019 Heliophysics Summer School class, with Amitava Bhattacharjee (left), Lika Guhathakurta (center), and Dana Longcope (right). Credit: UCAR/CPAESS

The Summer School community is remarkably varied and inclusive. Student research interests span topics across all of solar, heliospheric and space physics. About half of the class cohort comes from outside the U.S each year; this has helped heliophysics education grow worldwide, as several alumni have gone on to introduce heliophysics to their home institutions on different continents. Still, further expansion of the school’s diversity and reach will only benefit the science.

We must spread our wings outward, to bring more and more people in… I hope that… promoting the next generation will keep the quality of our science very very high. The more diverse in every sense of the term our community is, I’m absolutely convinced the better we are.

Amitava Bhattacharjee

Astrophysicist and dean of the Heliophysics Summer School

Students should have greater access to powerful software tools

Graphic of the azimuthal magnetic field from a global dynamo simulation

Snapshot of the azimuthal magnetic field achieved in one of the global solar dynamo simulations produced at the University of Colorado Boulder Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences. Credit: Loren Matilsky, University of Colorado Boulder and JILA

The Summer School’s interactive labs and opportunities to run model simulations at NASA/NSF’s Community Coordinated Modeling Center have given students valuable skills. Eventually, however, the School should expose students more to the great wealth of promising software being developed, both inside and outside heliophysics.

It’s about time that we start teaching our students how they can use the enormous amount of software being built, not just in the heliophysics community, but in the computer science and applied math community… We must find a way to bring this enormous power out there to bear on the education of our students.

Amitava Bhattacharjee

Astrophysicist and dean of the Heliophysics Summer School

Together, NASA’s Living With a Star (LWS) Program and UCAR/CPAESS enjoy a strong partnership in their fostering of heliophysics education and of the growing Sun-Earth community. With their support of the Summer School and related programs like the Jack Eddy Postdoctoral Fellowship and the Living With a Star Institute, the future of the next generation of heliophysics scientists – and the science itself – is radiant.

Read more: How did heliophysics emerge?