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

NASA has announced a new space mission, one that will delve into the work of solar wind in the farther reaches of our solar system.

The mission, called Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe or IMAP, will be launched in 2024 to understand how charged particles constantly emanating from the sun, aka solar wind, protect our solar system.

Scientists already know that solar wind creates a giant bubble that extends far past the orbits of planets and encompasses the entire solar system. The bubble, called Heliosphere, moves with sun through interstellar space and plays a crucial role in protecting our star system and its planets from high-energy cosmic radiation originating from the edges of interstellar space.

Though Heliosphere limits a significant amount of interstellar cosmic radiation, some of the particles still pass through and enter the inner part of the solar system. These sneaky particles are exactly what the new mission aims to study.

As NASA said in a release, the particles making it through the boundary of the bubble will be sampled, analyzed, and mapped by a spacecraft, which will be positioned at Earth-Sun Lagrange Point or LP1, a gravitationally stable point 1.5 million kilometers from our planet toward the sun. Here, the probe will be able to make the best use of its 10 science instruments, provided by domestic and international research organizations, and monitor how the solar wind interacts with the interstellar medium.

“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.

That said, the mission is expected to provide critical insight not just into the Heliosphere but also into the generation of local and interstellar cosmic radiation and how it might affect human space travelers as well as their technological systems.

“The implications of this research could reach well beyond the consideration of Earthly impacts as we look to send humans into deep space,” Andrucyk added.

NASA selected the IMAP mission after going through a number of proposals submitted last year. The cost of the mission has been capped at $492, but that does not include the cost of the launch vehicle. Notably, this is the fifth segment of NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Probes (STP) Program, which addresses fundamental science questions about the nature of space, and the flow of material and energy throughout our stellar neighborhood. The first four missions under the program were Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO), Magnetospheric Multiscale mission (MMS), Hinode, and Thermosphere, Ionosphere, Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics (TIMED) mission.