The farthest human-made spacecraft, Voyager 1, is currently over 13 billion miles away from the Earth. At that distance, the spacecraft has passed through the heliosphere—the border between our solar system and interstellar space—which means technically, Voyager 1 has left the solar system completely. Despite having a spacecraft fly through this region, scientists still don’t understand much about the heliosphere, so NASA is launching a new spacecraft specifically to learn more about it.
Fortunately, NASA’s new spacecraft doesn’t have to fly all the way out to the heliosphere in order to study it. Instead, the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) is slated to fly to a quiet region of space between the Earth and the sun in 2024. Here, IMAP will collect some of the particles that pass through the heliosphere from elsewhere in the galaxy.
“The implications of this research could reach well beyond the consideration of Earthly impacts as we look to send humans into deep space,” said Dennis Andrucyk, deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a press release.
As NASA, SpaceX, and others plan various missions to send humans to Mars, one of the biggest questions is how safe astronauts will be while traveling through interplanetary space for months at a time. All other astronauts in history have either been in space for a week or two, like during the Apollo missions, or they lived on space stations in low Earth orbit, protected by Earth’s magnetic field.
The primary danger of deep space travel is the kind of interstellar particles that IMAP is designed to study. But fortunately, most of these particles don’t make it past the heliosphere thanks to the strength of solar wind. These particles ejected from the sun, described as wind, collide with particles from outside the solar system to form a kind of barrier around the heliosphere, keeping the inner solar system relatively safe from radiation.
But exactly how safe is still an open question, and it’s one that IMAP is designed to answer. Once it launches in 2024, the spacecraft will spend several years studying these radiation particles, and the hope is that it will find that space is safe enough for humans to travel great distances. With any luck, IMAP could give future Mars missions the green light, and we could be sending astronauts off to the Red Planet shortly after.
Previously Published By: Popular Mechanics USA