Despite the extraordinary effort, sizeable investment, and success of the atm solar observatory, the question remains: For future solar observatories in Earth orbit, should not the observers and instrument operators remain on the ground? After all, several unmanned solar observatories have flown since the atm and made exceptional scientific contributions. Gibson believes the answer depends on the nature of the flight opportunity, the seriousness with which a manned solar observatory mission is approached, and several other factors.
Certainly electronic data collection capabilities and air-ground telemetry rates have seen explosive growth in the past few decades. Also, except for repair and instrument upgrades, such as utilized on the Hubble Space
Telescope, the expense, extra complexity, use of less-than-fulltime and best – qualified solar physicists as observers, and other restrictions of manned missions argue in favor of the observer remaining on the ground. However, if a manned mission will be in orbit and solar observations can be accommodated, the lessons of atm are applicable. The International Space Station might present this type of opportunity — if it can be continuously manned by six to eight crewpersons in total with at least three of them full-time, best-qualified solar physicists who are devoted 99 percent to observations. This situation will not likely become a reality unless cheap, frequent, and dependable transportation to and from iss becomes a reality.
The extrapolation of the lessons of atm suggests the inclusion of:
A routine observations program with a prioritized shopping list of targets of opportunity and the freedom to modify operations as judged best by the operator.
A dedicated observatory with round-the-clock operations and stable solar pointing on the day side of the orbit.
Full-time dedicated observers who are best qualified to operate the observatory whether in flight or on the ground.
Dedicated continuous communication loops with ground scientists for two-way, free exchange of data and commands.
Stability, instrument resolution, and display resolution that matches the best available capability (currently approaching 0.1 arc second).
Instruments that synergistically cover the visible down to the x-ray range of wavelengths.
At least one instrument that observes the sun’s magnetic field, which drives all solar phenomena in and above its surface.
At least one instrument that observes the Doppler shift of several wavelengths to detect line-of-sight velocities at various heights in the solar atmosphere.
Onboard quick-look capability for most data sent to the ground.
“Unfortunately, considering our current manned spaceflight programs and proficiency, it is not likely that the opportunities and capabilities for a manned solar observatory are likely to materialize in the near future,” Gibson said. “Thus, the atm mode of operation should be viewed as a rare milestone that will not be soon duplicated or surpassed.
“However, two general conclusions can be drawn from the atm experience. First, mental challenges of the type offered by the atm operations are essential on long-duration flights if for no other reason than for intelligent and motivated crewmembers to retain their mental sharpness and positive outlook. Second, there is no good reason that Nobel Prize-quality science, utilizing the space environment, cannot be accomplished in an orbiting laboratory just as we realize in our best laboratories here on Earth.”
Garriott would prefer a more modest (and perhaps realistic) goal for the scientifically trained crewmember. From his perspective, and thinking in terms of the next fifty years or so, spaceflight is still expected to be a marvelous, but seldom encountered, personal opportunity. It seems more likely to him that scientifically trained people will be most valued as generalists and not specialists in one (or even two) disciplines. They will be needed as observers working in close cooperation with the best researchers around the world, helping them in conducting their specialized activity. This is not unlike the roles of the Skylab science pilots but extended as hardware capabilities and knowledge expands. While Nobel-competent astronauts are not to be excluded, he believes their “Ah-ha” insights leading to new scientific discoveries and even a Nobel nomination are more likely to arrive in quiet contemplation near their home office or in team meetings with their fellow specialists in interdisciplinary discussions on the ground.