Heliophysics & Planetary Science Office

The United States launched its first orbiting satellite on 31 January, 1958.  Explorer I opened a new window on the environments of space near Earth and beyond.  In the years since, NASA’s mission to understand the space environments of the Sun and planets has revealed a rich tapestry of natural processes involving electric and magnetic fields in a medium of highly ionized gas, otherwise known as a plasma.  A major objective of NASA’s Heliophysics Research Program of the Science Mission Directorate is to understand the origin and nature of solar activity and its effect on the space environment of Earth.  In addition, the involved physical processes relate to the formation and evolution of planetary systems everywhere and to the conditions within their atmospheres.

The heliophysics and space weather research being performed at MSFC supports NASA’s mission by conducting an experimental program of solar and magnetospheric physics research through theory and modeling, and through the analysis of old and new measurements acquired on the ground and in space.  This research seeks to expand our understanding of the basic physical processes shaping the heliospheric space environment and to enable the prediction of its conditions, so-called space weather, for use in protecting the Agency’s mission of exploration and utilization of space. 

Research is organized into three primary themes: the Sun and the heliosphere, the terrestrial magnetosphere and ionosphere, and space weather.  Of primary interest at the Sun is the internal processing of magnetic fields that leads to a periodic cycle of activity and the dynamics of the extended magnetic field into the corona where energy is irregularly released in tremendous eruptions of particle and electromagnetic energy.  The response of Earth’s magnetic environment to solar activity is the focus of magnetospheric research.  Thermal plasma in the ionosphere and its extension into the magnetosphere play important roles influencing the propagation of waves and the transport of energy and particles through the magnetospheric system.  The derived knowledge of processes taking place at the Sun and its extended plasma environment are needed to characterize the climate in space and to predict its dynamic conditions.

The Planetary Science Office at MSFC is involved in learning about the origins of the solar system, its composition and evolution.  Research activities include planetary sample analysis, planetary interior modeling, and planetary atmospheres.  Scientists are involved in a number of projects including Cassini, Lunar Mapping and Modeling, lunar simulants, Mars Exploration Rovers, and the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL).  The Planetary Science Office has two specialized laboratories: the Dusty Plasma laboratory and the Noble Gas Research Lab.