NASA will work with SpaceX on a mission to explore the far reaches of the Solar System, according to the agency.
Last week, NASA announced SpaceX as their chosen partner to launch the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe, first selected by the agency in June 2018. The probe will enable NASA to explore the Solar System's magnetic boundaries, known as the heliosphere, shedding light on some of the biggest mysteries about the liminal space between our Solar System and interstellar space. If all goes to plan, SpaceX will send up the probe in October 2024.
One of the key questions the probe could answer is why the Solar System's heliosphere, which is essentially a giant magnetic filter, only works so well. Scientists know particles emitted by the Sun form a solar wind, which shields the rest of the Solar System from particles and cosmic radiation coming in from other parts of the universe. But some neutral particles make it past this filter, infiltrating our cosmic neighborhood.
The research could also help humans achieve more ambitious crewed missions into space. The probe will also observe cosmic rays and enable scientists on the ground to better understand how they form. These rays could play a role in life in the universe, NASA explains, but they can also cause issues for astronauts and space equipment. This is a major concern going forward, as people like SpaceX CEO Elon Musk call for humanity to use refuelable rockets to venture out further than ever into space.
“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,” Dennis Andrucyk, deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement issued after the mission was first selected. “The implications of this research could reach well beyond the consideration of Earthly impacts as we look to send humans into deep space.”
The IMAP probe is a partnership between Princeton University and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. SpaceX will send the probe up in October 2024 from Space Launch Complex 40, located at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. It will launch using a Falcon 9 Full Thrust, the most-recent version of the rocket and the one currently employed by SpaceX for most of its satellite launches.
The launch is expected to cost NASA $109.4 million.
The probe will sit around a million miles from Earth — the first Lagrange point between the Earth and the Sun. A Lagrange point is a place where an object can stay between two other objects, and, thanks to the gravitational forces of the objects at either end, will stay in position and maintain a straight line through all three. This first Lagrange point has been used for past projects, like the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory.
Alongside IMAP, the mission will launch with four other payloads:
- The NASA Lunar Trailblazer mission. This will map out water on the surface of the Moon, revealing more about its overall geology.
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Follow On-Lagrange 1 mission. This will enable the administration to forecast space weather events by collecting data on solar winds.
- Two further NASA heliophysics missions.
The Inverse analysis – SpaceX has played an important role in NASA's recent missions, and that relationship is set to continue. The company supported NASA with 20 Commercial Resupply Services to the International Space Station with the Dragon capsule, and in May 2020 began a new era of crewed missions, with the launch of NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley in the Crew Dragon capsule. All of these missions flew on the Falcon 9 rocket.
The partnership offers insight into how space exploration is conducted in the future. In a May 2020 interview with Inverse, Hurley said that exploring Mars and beyond would need to involve "a combination of the public and private sector."
But with SpaceX hard at work on the next-generation Starship, NASA's future missions with SpaceX may not involve the Falcon 9 at all.