NASA’s New Spacecraft Will Explore the Reaches of Interstellar Space

Expected to launch sometime in the early 2030s, the Interstellar Probe will study how our solar system interacts with the rest of space around it.

Scientists hope the proposed Interstellar Probe will teach us more about our home in the galaxy as well as how other stars in the galaxy interact with their interstellar neighborhoods. (Credit: John Hopkins APL)

(CN) — Following the recent success of Perseverance, NASA’s Mars rover, the space agency is planning to explore beyond the reaches of our solar system with its next spacecraft called the Interstellar Probe.

The new spacecraft will carry on the legacy of the Voyager program, which launched two probes in 1977 to explore Earth’s neighboring planets. 

The Interstellar Probe will feature modern instruments to help scientists gain a greater understanding of our solar system and local interstellar medium, the space just beyond the influence of our Sun. Unlike Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, the new craft will be equipped to handle the long distance trip to interstellar space. It is expected to reach its destination in 15 years, whereas the Voyager probes took 35 years.

“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 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.”

Using more sophisticated technology than was available in the 70s, NASA scientists plan to have the probe travel 1,000 astronomical units from the Sun, about 93 trillion miles. They hope to use the spacecraft to learn how our solar system formed and has changed since its formation. The announcement was made Monday at the European Geosciences Union’s 2021 General Assembly held online.

A large amount of study will focus on the heliosphere, the bubble of space created by the sun. The heliosphere is important because it protects the Earth from high-energy galactic cosmic rays that can increase our exposure to radiation.

“Some mysteries the team hopes to solve with the mission include: how the sun’s plasma interacts with interstellar gas to create our heliosphere; what lies beyond our heliosphere; and what our heliosphere even looks like,” the group said in a statement.

The probe will use energetic neutral atoms to take “images” of the Sun’s heliosphere and “observe extragalactic background light from the early times of our galaxy formation — something that can’t be seen from Earth,” Provornikova said.

By traveling beyond the solar system, the team at NASA hopes to understand how our Sun, and other stars interact with interstellar space. The group is currently undergoing the last year of a four-year “pragmatic concept study” to determine what the mission could investigate.

The probe could launch in the early 2030s, when it will roughly take another 15 years to reach interstellar space. 

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