We live in the extended atmosphere of an active star. While sunlight enables and sustains life, the Sun's variability produces streams of high energy particles and radiation that can harm life or alter its evolution.
Under the protective shield of a magnetic field and atmosphere, the Earth is an island in the Universe where life has developed and flourished. The origins and fate of life on Earth are intimately connected to the way the Earth responds to the Sun's variations.
Understanding the Sun, Heliosphere, and Planetary Environments as a single connected system is the goal of the Science Mission Directorate's Heliophysics Research Program. In addition to solar processes, our domain of study includes the interaction of solar plasma and radiation with Earth, the other planets, and the Galaxy. By analyzing the connections between the Sun, solar wind, planetary space environments, and our place in the Galaxy, we are uncovering the fundamental physical processes that occur throughout the Universe. Understanding the connections between the Sun and its planets will allow us to predict the impacts of solar variability on humans, technological systems, and even the presence of life itself.
We have already discovered ways to peer into the internal workings of the Sun and understand how the Earth's magnetosphere responds to solar activity. Our challenge now is to explore the full system of complex interactions that characterize the relationship of the Sun with the solar system. Understanding these connections is especially critical as we contemplate our destiny in the third millennium. Heliophysics is needed to facilitate the accelerated expansion of human experience beyond the confines of our Earthly home. Recent advances in technology allow us, for the first time, to realistically contemplate voyages beyond the solar system.
There are three primary objectives that define the multi-decadal studies needed:
A combination of interrelated elements is used to achieve these objectives. They include complementary missions of various sizes; timely development of enabling and enhancing technologies; and acquisition of knowledge through research, analysis, theory, and modeling.