NASA wants to put two proposals in a $75 million competition to discover the fundamental nature of the universe

NASA is pitting two proposals against each other to win a contract worth $75 million. The goal of the contract is for the winning proposal to help discover the fundamental nature of the universe, which mainly involves the Sun’s heliosphere.

Furthermore, the winning proposal will tag along with another mission with the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe that is scheduled to launch on October 2024.

For now, the space agency NASA wants to give the two chosen proposal developmental funding worth up to $400,000 each. Only the selected mission will receive up to $75 million to prepare for a journey to a Lagrangianpoint or L1, a stable gravitational location between Earth and the sun.

Visual representation of how largely encompassing the heliosphere is and how far Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have come since its 1977 launch.
Source: Brittanica

This mission would build on our knowledge about the Sun’s heliosphere— or the sun’s sphere of influence, particularly regarding the solar wind particles which steam from its surface.

Significantly, the heliosphere is considered as a safe zone from the harsh and penetrative forces of the universe. It is created by our Sun’s solar wind, which spread across the galaxy encompassing it like a bubble. This bubble offers the possibility for inside it to survive and thrive. 

However, astronomers are not completely sure where the heliosphere exactly ends. Thus, they cannot, for certain, make ground assurances of up until what distance can a planet host life. 

So far, only two spacecraft have ever ventured into the interstellar medium: Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Unfortunately, these two spacecraft—launched in 1977—is set to stop functioning in 2020, which calls for a newer and more in-depth study into what NASA refers to as the fundamental nature of the universe and how certain celestial respond to planetary atmospheres, radiation from the Sun, and interstellar particles. 

Thanks to the space agency’s new SMD Rideshare Initiative, which cuts costs by sending multiple missions on a single launch, at least one of the chosen proposals will advance NASA’s heliophysics program and could lead to better protection for both technology and humans as we travel farther from home.

The first two of the chosen proposals is SILHA or the Spatial/Spectral Imaging of Heliospheric Lyman Alpha whose principal investigator is Larry Paxton, who also currently serves as the head of the geospace and Earth science group at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.

“SIHLA would map the entire sky to determine the shape and underlying mechanisms of the boundary between the heliosphere, the area of our sun’s magnetic influence, and the interstellar medium, a boundary known as the heliopause,” NASA said in a statement.

“The observations would gather far-ultraviolet light emitted from hydrogen atoms. This wavelength is key for examining many astrophysical phenomena, including planetary atmospheres and comets because so much of the universe is composed of hydrogen.”

Meanwhile, the second proposal, which Lara Waldrop is the principal investigator, would look at Earth’s upper atmosphere, also known as the exosphere, by looking at the ultraviolet light that hydrogen emits. 

Waldrop is an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.

Her proposal, also known as the Global Lyman-alpha Imagers of the Dynamic Exosphere (GLIDE) are particularly interested in learning how “space weather,” or the Sun’s solar radiation and other effects, can interfere with radio communications in space. Since spacecraft generally use radio to communicate with Earth, predicting interference is vital to keeping science flowing across the solar system.

“The proposed mission would fill an existing measurement gap, as only a handful of such images previously have been made from outside the exosphere,” NASA said in the same statement. “The mission would gather observations at a high rate, with a view of the entire exosphere, ensuring a truly global and comprehensive set of data.”

Separately, this launch will also include a HeliophysicsTechnology Demonstration Mission of to test technologies that can enable future science missions, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Follow-On mission, which will expand that agency’s space weather forecasting capabilities.

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