The solar winds that stream outwards from our Sun at up to 700 km/h (435 mph) have a direct hand in the evolution of the Solar System's planets, but they have an indirect influence as well. When they hit the fringes of interstellar space they collide with material from beyond and work as a kind of cosmic filter, limiting the amount of harmful particles that come back the other way. NASA has ticked off a new mission to probe this protective bubble known as the heliosphere, to better understand how its mechanics affect the deep space environment and its ramifications for future exploration missions.
NASA's Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) mission was selected from a set of proposals received late last year, and will see a spacecraft travel to the first Langrage Point (L1) one million miles (1.6 million km) away. Langrage points are regions of space where, due to the gravitational pull of surrounding bodies canceling each other out, objects remain in place rather than drifting off through space.
The first of those is around four times farther than the Moon is from Earth, in the direction of the Sun. Once the it arrives there, IMAP will join the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, a spacecraft sent to L1 in 1995 that, among other things, gathers data on solar winds one hour before they hit the Earth.
But IMAP will be casting its eye farther afield, using its 10 scientific instruments to sample, analyze and map the particles streaming towards Earth after making it through the heliosphere.
"This boundary is where our Sun does a great deal to protect us. IMAP is critical to broadening our understanding of how this 'cosmic filter' works," said Dennis Andrucyk, deputy associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "The implications of this research could reach well beyond the consideration of Earthly impacts as we look to send humans into deep space."
The mission will also seek to improve our understanding of cosmic rays. These beams of high-energy radiation travel at the speed of light and most of them come from beyond our Solar System. Scientists hope IMAP can shed new light on those that form in the heliosphere.
The IMAP mission is planned for launch in 2024.
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