NASA recently chose a team of experts to work on a new mission studying the outer solar system and safer space travel, and several University of New Hampshire researchers made the list.
The operation, called the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe mission, is scheduled to launch in 2024 and is expected to help researchers around the world better understand the global heliosphere — a bubble that surrounds and protects our solar system from dangerous radiation, said Nathan Schwadron, a UNH professor of physics and one of the mission’s deputy principal investigators.
“I’ve been working for my whole career to do this mission,” he said. “It’s a culmination of many, many things. What I find so exciting about it is understanding . . . our local cosmic environment, how the solar wind is created, how that interacts with the interstellar medium, and what the properties of the interstellar medium are. This is an area of really rapid discovery.”
The researchers will map and sample particles streaming to Earth from the edges of interstellar space, hopefully informing and providing for safe space travel, as well as capturing visually compelling images for people to understand, said Harlan Spence, another UNH professor and one of the mission’s co-investigators.
To Schwadron, the project has three key components: to study the global heliosphere, to discover the origins of particle acceleration, and to continue to take key measurements of space weather phenomena.
The heliosphere is vitally important to our solar system, he said, because it regulates the entry of galactic cosmic rays, which can damage space instruments and cause radiation exposure that poses risks for humans in space.
But although the heliosphere protects us from dangerous galactic cosmic radiation, researchers have found that a process called particle acceleration can still pose serious radiation risks to astronauts and satellites within the solar system, Schwadron said.
“Inside of our own solar system, there are powerful electromagnetic forces that can accelerate charged particles to very high energies, and those energies pose radiation risks to explorers, even down to atmospheric altitudes, which could affect aircraft crews,” Spence said.
It’s important to understand how this process works and how to protect against it, he said.
The spacecraft, which will be unmanned, will be loaded with 10 scientific instruments, including one that will provide imaging of the heliosphere and track the flow of interstellar neutral atoms, Schwadron said.
Armed with mapping tools, the spacecraft will travel to Lagrange point L1, which lies on a direct line between Earth and the sun.
“It’s the ideal point in which to measure disturbances that come from the sun that reach the Earth,” Schwadron said. “It’s also a good place to image the global heliosphere.”
The next few years are going to involve a lot of heavy planning, Spence said, including defining project requirements, creating a detailed design of the spacecraft, and building prototypes.
“It’s especially important now that commercial space travel is really taking off, and private ventures are aiming to take people into space,” Spence said. “And we’re going to map the sky and show things that we only dream about. The images will be of the unexplored edge of the solar system and beyond, literally.”