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7 Things To Know About The 50-Year ‘Interstellar Probe’ Mission To Burst Our Cosmic Bubble

7 Things To Know About The 50-Year ‘Interstellar Probe’ Mission To Burst Our Cosmic Bubble

On February 14, 1990, NASA’s Voyager 1 space probe turned its cameras back towards the Sun and took a hazy, fuzzy and not particularly useful image that included our planet as a “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

The late popular astronomer Carl Sagan, who wrote those words about the now iconic “Pale Blue Dot” photo (below) would today surely be working on the “Interstellar Probe,” a new mission concept to boldly go where no spacecraft has gone before.

Being discussed this week at the European Geoscience Union General Assembly 2021, scientists are planning for the Interstellar Probe to reach the “interstellar medium”—the space beyond our Solar System—that’s about 10 times as far as the Voyager spacecraft have gone.

In doing so it will find out the nature of the “cosmic bubble” that envelopes the Sun, in which the Solar System exists, but it could also uncover a few new worlds on its way.

Here are seven things you need to know about this groundbreaking 50-year mission:

1. It will update our ‘Pale Blue Dot’ photo

“The Interstellar Probe will go to the unknown local interstellar space, where humanity has never reached before,” said Elena Provornikova, the Interstellar Probe heliophysics lead from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (APL) in Maryland.

“For the first time, we will take a picture of our vast heliosphere from the outside to see what our Solar System home looks like.”

2. It would be our boldest move since the Moon landings

That’s according to the scientists behind the concept, who say that this first deliberate step into the sea of space between our Sun and other potentially habitable systems would lead to new and inspiring exploration.

The project is being led by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), but the concept study now underway is being funded by NASA. It’s largely based on current technology.

3. It will go about 10 times as far as the Voyager spacecraft

Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft entered interstellar space in 2012 and 2018, respectively. They’ve traveled about 120 astronomical units (au)—120 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun—and are at the boundary of the heliosphere, the Sun’s sphere of influence.

The Interstellar Probe will reach 1,000 AU and enter the interstellar medium—the space between the stars.

4. It could launch in 2030 and last for over 50 years

Slated to launch in the early 2030s, Interstellar Probe would take about 15 years to reach the heliosphere boundary. That’s super-quick. After all, the two Voyager spacecraft took 35 years to reach the same place. The lifespan of this Interstellar Probe is rated at 50 years, which would give it 35 years—and likely much longer—to explore a totally new region of space.

A key recent innovation that makes this possible is NASA’s SLS heavy-lift rocket, which could get the Interstellar Probe to the velocity necessary—and allow it to cover about seven au per year.

5. It will explore our ‘shield’ from the outside

The heliosphere is the extent of the Sun’s influence. It’s the limit of the solar wind—that stream of charged particles that the Sun throws out into space—but it also shields our Solar System from high-energy galactic cosmic rays. Science instruments on the Interstellar Probe will find out:

  • How the Sun’s plasma interacts with interstellar gas to create our heliosphere.
  • What lies beyond the heliosphere
  • What our heliosphere even looks like from the outside.

It will use energetic neutral atoms to take images of the heliosphere and could even detect extragalactic background light from the early times of our galaxy’s formation.

6. It could fly-by a dwarf planet we know nothing about

Forget the “eight planets” thing. Sure, Pluto got relegated to dwarf planet status, but the real story was always this: the Solar System has a ton of small planets. Beyond Pluto there are reckoned to be about 130 dwarf planets, but as we know from exploring Pluto (which turned out to be geologically active and may have an underground ocean of liquid water), many are they’re way more geologically complex and interesting than we thought.

So on its way out to deep space the Interstellar Probe could swing by either Quaoar or Gonggong—which could be geologically active—plus another dwarf planet.

7. It will recce the next region of space we’re about to enter

That shield around our Solar System may be about to get swamped. The Sun orbits the center of the Milky Way galaxy about once every 220-250 million years. That’s a galactic year, which makes the Earth about 16 years old. Scientists think that the Sun is currently on the edge of the Local Interstellar Cloud, having spent millions of years traveling through it, and will soon move into a new region of interstellar space.

So the Interstellar Probe will see what’s coming next, and whether the Sun’s heliosphere adjusts to a changing level of galactic cosmic rays in this new region of space. If there are more, it could raise the level of background radiation level at Earth. As a bonus scientists will also discover how out Sun, and by extension, all stars, interacts with the local galaxy.

At the end of 2021 the team will deliver a report to NASA that outlines potential science, example instrument payloads, and example spacecraft and trajectory designs for the mission. “Our approach is to lay out the menu of what can be done in such a space mission,” said Provornikova.

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.

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