Promising new work is underway to pursue a robotic interstellar mission to deep space.
Called Interstellar Probe, this venture could capture a unified view of our heliosphere, in nearby interstellar space. It all sounds extremely noble, ambitious and difficult to do.
But there’s no need to wait for new technology, proponents say — it’s here, and a prime mission booster could be NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).
Related: A wild ‘interstellar probe’ mission idea is gaining momentum
“It’s not about where we’re going. It’s about the journey there. And it’s a long overdue journey,” said physicist Ralph McNutt Jr. of the Applied Physics Laboratory ( APL) from Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, Maryland.
As now visualized in a recent study, Interstellar Probe would use today’s technology to take the first explicit step on the path to interstellar exploration, and may pave the way, scientifically, technically, and programmatically, for future journeys further afield. ambitious – and to conquer more things to do. -achieve scientific objectives.
Plus, with the new class of superheavy launch vehicles in the works – notably NASA’s SLS – a scientifically compelling interstellar probe mission can now become a reality.
“Our team put a lot of effort into ensuring that the study was as thorough and detailed as possible, while throwing a ‘broad web’ of possibilities. We look forward to what our colleagues from the 10-year survey on solar and space physics have to say,” McNutt said.
Interstellar Probe is a decades-long mission to reach several hundred astronomical units (AU) away from Earth while providing new unified measurements of conditions across the entire heliosphere and across the heliosheath – the outer envelope of the bubble of charged particles around our Sun.
Advancing on Interstellar Probe, it will resume the relay race started with Pioneer 10, followed by Voyager 1 and Voyager 2.
We already have the technology to travel as far and as fast as possible: the Space Launch System Block 2 cargo version could be used to transport the spacecraft as well as a 3rd and 4th stage rocket booster. Solar system escape velocities of at least twice that of Voyager 1 – up to 7.2 astronomical units per year – should be achievable using this system.
Launching a probe in such an adventure has been under discussion for nearly half a century, McNutt said. As the 40-year-old Voyagers wind down their operational life as their power supplies continue to dwindle, further progress requires fresh initiative, he said.
“We, the human race, have gone further and further from the Sun since the launch of Pioneer 10 in 1972. Since then, there have been still been a ‘distant presence’ moving outward into the solar system and to regions beyond,” McNutt told Space.com.
Over the next decade, the Voyagers will fall silent. It’s about physics, engineering and “cold equations,” McNutt added.
“So the question is, will this also herald a retreat from pushing the boundaries of knowledge, or at least a handing over to another player on this planet? We are making history for future generations,” he said. said McNutt, “and we do this by our actions every day that we live. So who are we to deprive future generations of the next step to the stars? Why now? Rather: Why not now?
“I think Interstellar Probe is an exceptional concept,” said Paul Gilster, creative engine of the Centauri Dreams website. (opens in a new tab) – Imagine and Plan Interstellar Exploration. It’s a mission that could take us to 1,000 AU in 50 years, he said, and give us a vantage point from which to view the heliosphere from the outside.
“In this sense, it is both a heliophysical and a deep-space mission with implications for future exploration. Knowing more about the heliosphere, in turn, tells us says more about the solar wind, a possible source of propulsion for future sailboats, and its interactions with interstellar conditions,” Gilster told Space.com.
Interstellar Probe should be seen in context, Gilster said.
Currently, there are NASA’s two Voyager spacecraft, and at some point they will be joined by NASA’s New Horizons probe.
But neither these missions nor NASA’s former Pioneer spacecraft were built to study space outside our solar system, the region known as the local interstellar medium. “Interstellar Probe would be the first mission whose instrumentation is expressly designed with this task in mind,” Gilster said.
Gilster said he often hears objections when talking about Interstellar Probe: is it just “Voyager Plus?” And who wants to wait 50 years for data? But these are faulty assumptions, he said.
Interstellar Probe is an entirely new class of mission designed to operate far beyond the Kuiper Belt. The 50 year period is a 1000 AU target and based on optimistic ideas of how to find the necessary “delta-V” – the amount of “effort” needed to move from one trajectory to another while performing a orbital maneuver.
“But the thing is, Interstellar Probe will be doing science all the way,” Gilster said. “We will learn a lot more than the Voyagers could tell us every year this mission flies, not only about the interstellar medium but also about long-lived electronics, deep space communications and the nature of travel. from our Sun through the galaxy with its protective heliosphere.We will also have many targets to study as the interstellar probe travels through the outer solar system and its abundant Kuiper Belt Objects.
Deep Space Precursor
Gilster envisions Interstellar Probe as a precursor to even deeper space, as humanity will eventually want to use future technologies to penetrate the Oort cloud of comets to explore this vast, largely unknown region.
“I think it’s only fitting that Voyager veteran Ralph McNutt, who has done so much for our species’ exploration of the solar system, should be the principal investigator of the first probe designed to leave this system,” said said Gilster. “I wish him and his team at APL well as they navigate the approval process that must follow.”
For a detailed look at how this mission could be accomplished, read the team’s post “Interstellar probe — Destination: Universe (opens in a new tab)!” in the magazine Acta Astronautica.
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