NASA Selects SpaceX to Launch Mission Studying Interstellar Space

 In Space

This illustration shows the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe observing signals from the interaction of the solar wind with the winds of other stars. Credit: NASA

NASA has award­ed SpaceX a $109 mil­lion con­tract to launch the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe, a NOAA space weath­er obser­va­to­ry, a robot­ic scout to map water on the moon, and two other ride­a­long pay­loads on a single Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in 2024.

The rideshare mission’s pri­ma­ry pas­sen­ger is IMAP, a probe head­ing for an observ­ing post nearly a mil­lion miles (1.5 mil­lion kilo­me­ters) from Earth in the direc­tion of the sun at the L1 Lagrange point. IMAP’s instru­ments will study the bound­ary between the helios­phere — where the sun’s influ­ence reigns — and the region between the stars known as inter­stel­lar space.

NASA con­sid­ered launch­ers from SpaceX and United Launch Alliance for IMAP. The agency announced Friday that a Falcon 9 rocket will boost the IMAP space­craft toward its dis­tant oper­at­ing orbit at L1, a grav­i­ta­tion­al bal­ance point between the Earth and the sun.

IMAP’s launch is sched­uled for October 2024 from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, accord­ing to NASA. The space agency said the value of the con­tract with SpaceX is $109.4 mil­lion, includ­ing “the launch ser­vice and other mis­sion relat­ed costs.”

Fitted with 10 instru­ments, IMAP will map the outer reach­es of the helios­phere, where par­ti­cles blown out­ward by the solar wind run into winds from other stars. The bound­ary, locat­ed about 10 bil­lion miles from the sun, shields Earth and the rest of the plan­ets from harm­ful cosmic rays.

Some of IMAP’s instru­ments will sample neu­tral par­ti­cles from inter­stel­lar space that make it into the helios­phere, along with inter­stel­lar dust par­ti­cles. In addi­tion to prob­ing the col­li­sion between the sun’s winds and mate­ri­als from other stars, IMAP will also study the fun­da­men­tal process­es that accel­er­ate par­ti­cles through­out the helios­phere, and beyond, accord­ing to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which is devel­op­ing the mis­sion and build­ing the space­craft for NASA.

File photo of a Falcon 9 launch. Credit: SpaceX

The IMAP mis­sion is cost-capped at $564 mil­lion, exclud­ing the cost of launch ser­vices. The launch con­tract NASA signed with SpaceX will push the mission’s total cost to NASA to nearly $700 mil­lion.

Although IMAP is the prime pay­load on the Falcon 9 launch in October 2024, the space­craft will not fill the rocket’s lift capac­i­ty.

A satel­lite being devel­oped by NOAA to mon­i­tor space weath­er will com­pa­ny IMAP into space. Like IMAP, NOAA’s Space Weather Follow On-Lagrange 1, or SWFO-L1, mis­sion will head to an observ­ing post around the L1 Lagrange point nearly a mil­lion miles from Earth.

The SWFO-L1 mis­sion will mon­i­tor the solar wind and detect solar flares that could threat­en Earth with dis­rup­tions in com­mu­ni­ca­tions, satel­lite nav­i­ga­tion, space­flight oper­a­tions, and elec­tri­cal grids. The new space weath­er sen­tinel, built by Ball Aerospace, will replace obser­va­tions cur­rent­ly pro­vid­ed by NOAA’s DSCOVR mis­sion and the SOHO space­craft joint­ly man­aged by NASA and the European Space Agency.

NASA’s Lunar Trailblazer space­craft will also launch with IMAP.

Built by Lockheed Martin, Lunar Trailblazer is a small space­craft that will fly into orbit around the moon. It will char­ac­ter­ize water on the sunlit side of the moon, mea­sure how the moon’s water changes over time, and study water ice locked in cold traps inside per­ma­nent­ly shad­owed craters at the moon’s poles.

The solar system’s teardrop-shaped heliosphere blocks many cosmic rays and interstellar particles from reaching Earth. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Conceptual Image Lab

NASA is also plan­ning to select two small helio­physics mis­sions to launch with IMAP on the Falcon 9 rocket. The agency is run­ning two sep­a­rate com­pe­ti­tions to pick the small helio­physics mis­sions that will launch with IMAP.

In one solic­i­ta­tion, NASA select­ed can­di­dates named SIHLA and GLIDE. The SIHLA mis­sion would col­lect com­ple­men­tary data to IMAP on the bound­ary between the helios­phere and inter­stel­lar space, while GLIDE would help sci­en­tists study how the exos­phere — the upper­most layer of Earth’s atmos­phere — responds to changes in solar activ­i­ty or the atmos­phere below.

NASA is con­sid­er­ing mis­sion con­cepts known as SETH and Solar Cruiser to take the other slot on the Falcon 9 launch with IMAP.

SETH would detect neu­tral atoms, waves and other par­ti­cles from the sun, and demon­strate laser com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­o­gy that could be used on future CubeSats and small satel­lites in deep space. Solar Cruiser would test a giant solar sail that would use the sun’s energy as a means of propul­sion, and would carry a coro­n­a­graph to mea­sure the sun’s mag­net­ic field struc­ture and the veloc­i­ty of mas­sive solar erup­tions, accord­ing to NASA.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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