A NASA team is working on the development of a new mission to probe the interstellar medium. This very ambitious project would aim to answer questions that Voyager probes could not help answer.
Voyager 1 and 2 probes have been in interstellar space for several years. Here, where the Sun is no longer completely king, the two ships returned interesting data allowing to probe the composition of this space. However, the main objective of this program was to collect scientific data on the outer planets of our system, namely Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. This is why, at the base, these two probes were not specially equipped to analyze this medium.
What NASA would like now is to release a new probe into this interstellar space equipped with instruments built especially for this purpose. Some details of these plans were revealed at the 2021 European Geoscience Union General Assembly.
“The interstellar probe would go to unknown local interstellar space, where humanity has never been before,” said Dr. Elena Provornikova of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. “For the first time, we could take a photo of our vast heliosphere from the outside to see what our home looks like: the solar system.”
A probe 1000 AU from the Sun
Elena Provornikova and her team will soon complete their four-year concept study to define the possible objectives of such a mission, or the type of instruments required to achieve them. A previous version of this interstellar mission was proposed in 1999, but it never materialized.
If it does see the light of day, researchers hope it could be launched within ten to twelve years. Then allow about fifteen years to reach the heliosphere (Voyager probes took thirty-five years to get there).
On paper, however, this mission is much more ambitious. Voyager 1, for example, currently sails 152 astronomical units from the Sun (152 times the Earth-Sun distance). The proposed probe would aim to collect data up to 1000 AU from the Sun. Of course the Voyager, Pioneer and New Horizons probes will reach such distances one day or another, but we will have lost contact with them for a long, long time.
In addition to sampling the interstellar medium to make measurements (composition, ionization, magnetic field), such a mission could also help us understand how the Sun’s plasma interacts with interstellar gas to create our heliosphere. We could also define what lies beyond our heliosphere, or even its shape (still speculative).
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