If NASA green lights this interstellar mission, it could last 100 years

NASA could approve this interstellar mission for up to 100 years if it is approved
Zoomen Sie dieses Bild toggle caption NASA/JPL–Caltech NASA/JPL–Caltech

NASA's Voyager spacecraft have been travelling for so long, that they've left the solar system. They were launched in 1977. Amazingly, the venerable probes can still communicate with Earth, although their plutonium-powered energy supply keeps getting smaller.

NASA asked an engineering and scientist team to design a successor mission that would continue the Voyagers' work. Within weeks, the group will have a report to share about their work. They have designed a practical and feasible spacecraft that can travel faster than the Voyagers, as well as further into interstellar space.

A mission that lasts a century

NASA could build the probe in 2036, and it would launch for at least 50 years. It may even go further than that. This would make it the longest-planned NASA mission by far.

All technology would eventually become obsolete, and agency officials would need to deal with the fact that all personnel involved in the mission are getting older.

Ralph McNutt, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory leader of the team involved in this mission, says that "it's always difficult to talk about transition plans." "Typically, it hasn’t really been happening on most space missions. It will be on this mission, however.

McNutt is about to turn 68 and believes he is the youngest member on the Voyager science team. He says that some of the original Voyager scientists "did indeed die." "Some of these transitions were a bit rough."

It was impossible to have predicted that the Voyager spacecraft would survive so long. They were originally built to last for five years so they could visit Saturn and Jupiter. NASA continued to improve the hardware and added flybys of Uranus, Neptune and others.

The spacecraft, which was still incredibly brave, continued to report back to Earth. Each spacecraft made history when they crossed the boundary of the Solar System's Solar System bubble and entered the unknown space between stars.

"We are just flat running out power"

Scientists who were not even born at the Voyagers' launch, such as Stella Ocker (25-year-old Cornell University graduate student), now rely on the data the Voyager probes transmit back to them as they travel through uncharted territory.

Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are now more than 14 billion miles apart. Ocker claims that they are not moving through black nothingness.

Ocker says that the interstellar medium appears empty but is actually full of gas and dust. It's filled with gas and dust, cosmic rays and energetic particles.

She says that there are still vast gaps in our knowledge about this area of the universe. This can only be filled through direct sampling.

Voyagers are doing this, and continue to send back information about the density and characteristics interstellar gases they are passing through.

McNutt says that "we're just flat out of power". The science team has come up with clever ways to preserve what is left so that the Voyagers can continue to operate for as long as possible. "We are determining which instrument will have its heaters turned off first.

He says current predictions suggest that the last instrument could be shut down in 2030 or 2031. This assumes nothing happens before then.

Zoomen Sie dieses Bild toggle caption NASA/JPL–Caltech NASA/JPL–Caltech

NASA officials knew this day was coming, and asked McNutt to help them devise a plan for an interstellar mission.

The proposed probe is based on technology that is either proven-and-true, or has been in development for a while. It comes with a similar price to the Parker Solar Probe which was sent to the Sun at a cost of $1.5billion.

Other groups may have had interstellar missions ideas in the past, or they are currently working on them, but those efforts aren’t ready for prime-time because they’re either incredibly costly or involve serious engineering challenges. Michael Paul is the project manager for interstellar probe team at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

Breakthrough Starshot, for example, has the admirable idea of sending many small probes forward that are pushed forward by powerful lasers. Paul says, however, "You and I probably will never get to see them work."

His coworkers and he, however, set out to create a NASA interstellar mission blueprint that was practical, not just a pie-in the sky plan that ended up on peoples' shelves.

This proposed spacecraft could pass a dwarf planet on its way out the solar system. It is similar to New Horizons' first Pluto visit in 2015. Kirby Runyon also works at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and notes that scientists don't know much about dwarf planets despite them being the most common type of planet in our Solar System.

Runyon says that there are a few terrestrial planets and a few giant planets. But we have over 130 dwarf planets. Runyon points out that many of these icy bodies could have originated as ocean worlds, which might have even been habitable in past times.

The spacecraft could visit a mysterious dwarf planet and would travel approximately twice as fast than Voyager 1 in the first 50 years. It also has the potential to travel over 375 astronomical units (or more 34 billion miles)

McNutt believes it is possible that this spacecraft, just like the Voyagers could keep going and reach over 800 astronomical units, or 74 billion miles, after having traveled for a century.

Although it may seem far away, Proxima Centauri is the nearest star to ours at approximately 25 trillion miles.

Planning a multi-generational space plan

Ocker says that this small step into interstellar orbit could help to design future missions that could reach other stars.

She says, "We need to be able to carry out missions over very long timescales in order to achieve any interstellar exploration aspirations that are so frequently portrayed in popular media."

Janet Vertesi is a Princeton University sociologist who has studied other space projects' organizational aspects. The research team sought to understand how to address the intergenerational nature this mission.

This is a problem that NASA missions often find a solution to. Vertesi notes that the Mars rovers, which were supposed to last 90 days, actually lasted 12 years.

She says that the researchers knew from the beginning that they would need to store computers and other technical components that could become obsolete. They knew they would eventually have to hand the torch to the next generation.

Vertesi says, "What they didn't consider, and where their expertise came in was how often that must happen for that to become an expected and regular part of mission operations and not major breach or big problem."

Hospitals, for example, have frequent handovers between shifts. This means that nurses and doctors have developed checklists and other procedures to ensure smooth transitions. Vertesi says, "That was the kind of thing they had to become good at planning for and thinking about."

She has led discussions with researchers to help them sort this out. Carey Lisse, an astronomer who is involved in the interstellar probe research, stated that these sessions were "very blunt" and made them think a lot.

He has done the math. "I will turn 75 in 2036, when we launch. This means I know that I won't be on this mission for more than ten year after launch," Lisse says, noting that handovers are a necessity. This is not theory. It will happen several times, most likely two to three times.

Paul says it's difficult to predict how the program will change over time. He also suggests that we look ahead to "what the demographics in the science community, engineering community and the entire world are going to look like so that this program is for them and not for ourselves."

Ocker, who hasn't even completed a PhD, says she won't be finished with her career when the probe reaches interstellar. NASA may support the mission if it launches in 2030s. "I am very optimistic that this mission will occur. She says she hopes it happens. In which case, she will be excited to get the data.

She would also like it to have a modern version of the Golden Records, which were phonograph albums used by Voyager probes to exchange greetings with aliens in interstellar spaces.

She says that while she doesn't believe we should copy the Golden Record, she believes it would be amazing to have a similar public outreach piece that plays an integral part in the mission.

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