LAUREL, Md. – One of the main awards at the Fort Worth Regional Science Fair in March 1970 – a slide rule and a complimentary dinner in Dallas – went to a high school junior named Ralph McNutt , the 30 pages on the question "Interstellar travel: Is that it? makeable? "And built a cardboard model of the spaceship, which he said could be the first to visit another sun.
Man landed on the moon last summer as the 16-year-old noted in the memoir his mother wrote for him on her Royal No. 10 typewriter had written. Soon, he was sure, we would dare to go to all the other planets in the solar system. Then it would be time for the next step: "Up to the stars".
On a sweaty summer afternoon, McNutt sits in his office at the Applied Physics Laboratory at John Hopkins University, a 65-year-old with a Mickey Mouse wrist watch and thinning hair. On his computer screen is the latest draft of his childhood dream: A plan for a probe that travels 1000 times farther than the Earth is out of the sun and leaves the safety of our solar system to explore the wilderness of interstellar space.
From this distant point of view, Interstellar Probe will help people finally see themselves for who we really are, says McNutt: Citizen of a Galaxy. Our home planet will only be one world among many, and the sun that gives us life is just another breath of light in the endless darkness.
This is a bold proposition, even by the standards of space. It would take fifty years for the probe to reach its target, and by then almost everyone involved in the project is dead.
Nonetheless, McNutt and a squad of Dreamer colleagues hope to receive important acknowledgment in a few years to publish the country's space scientists a list of their main research areas. To put Interstellar Probe on the agenda, his supporters need to convince their colleagues that his goal is scientifically valuable, not to mention political viability, when so many questions remain unresolved in the solar system and so many earthquakes remain unresolved.
Why does McNutt think it's possible?
The scientist leans back in his chair and crosses his arms. If he answers, it is poetry.
"I think the reach of humans should exceed their influence," he describes Robert Browning. "Otherwise, what is a sky for?"
93 billion miles from the sun
Our sun sits on a small arm of the spinning, star-studded windmill of the Milky Way, about 25,000 light-years from the galactic nucleus. The solar system, which zooms through the cosmos at a speed of about half a million miles per hour, is hit by gas and dust gusts and bombarded by energetic particles whose origin is a mystery.
But we on Earth are partially shielded from this chaos heliosphere, a balloon-like structure that is inflated by the solar wind. Charged particles streaming from the Sun stream to the edge of the Solar System – past the planet, beyond Pluto, through the frozen halo of the Kuiper Belt to a place called Heliopause.
This is the boundary zone between the flow of solar particles and the ocean of interstellar space; The border between our heavenly neighborhood and the wider universe.
Only two spaceships have reached this zone and survived the story: the two Voyager probes that were launched in 1977 and took more than 35 years to reach the Heliopause. (The Pioneer probes left the solar system, but were no longer in operation at this time.) Now their radio communication is getting weaker and some instruments have failed.
Voyager 1, the farthest human-built object in the universe, is now 145 astronomical units from Earth (one astronomical unit equals the distance between Earth and Sun). At this rate, it would take 283 years for McNutt to reach 1,000 AU – 150 billion kilometers from the Sun.
"To really explore what's out there." , , you want to get out of the solar system as fast as possible, "he said.
And for that you need a really big rocket.
NASA could soon have one. The ultra-light (but long-delayed) space launch system, which has nearly twice the thrust of the largest rocket in service, is expected to fly for the first time in 2020 or 2021.
With the SLS, Interstellar Probe could leave Earth at a speed of about 9 miles per second. After circling Jupiter, the probe fell back toward the sun and picked up the speed of our star's appeal. It would pass through the orbits of the inner planets and fly through the solar corona, until finally, just above the blazing sun's surface, it fired a second rocket and raced into the darkness at a speed of 60 miles per second. At this rapid and admittedly fast-paced pace, it would take little more than a decade for Heliopause to be reached.
The travel time would not be wasted. Planet scientist Kathy Mandt has explored the potential of Interstellar Probe to pass Uranus, Neptune, or an icy body in the Kuiper Belt called Quaoar.
Abigail Rymer, a physicist, considering how the mission could help research on exoplanets. An experiment could be to look back at the planets with the same techniques scientists use to study foreign worlds on Earth.
"Against the backdrop of the stars, we will see our habitable home," she says. , , and we will understand better what habitability means. "
If the probe crosses the boundary into interstellar space, it could seek out dust and sludge particles to help researchers understand the structure of the heliosphere and the material from which our sunlight originates.
And once it left the sun's protective bubble, it could finally investigate phenomena that obscured the heliosphere: galactic cosmic rays from exploding stars; Light from the afterglow of the big bang; Debris disks on which planets form around other suns.
The right time to give it a try?
Interstellar probe is currently available only in the form of PowerPoint presentations and a wink in McNutt's eyes. His team has received approximately $ 700,000 in conceptual studies and are waiting to see if NASA will provide them with another $ 6.5 million over the next three years to create a more detailed science plan and more detailed mission design.
The moment will come in 2023 when the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine will publish their next decade survey on solar and space physics. These reviews, which are conducted every 10 years at the request of Congress and NASA, form the official consensus on the country's space science goals and guide the NASA budget in the following years.
When Interstellar Probe is launched to McNutt's lifetime, this must be done as a top priority.
"It has always been something we could not do right away, but could perhaps set aside for the future," says Richard Mewaldt, a Caltech physicist who served as chairman of the Solar and Heliospheric Physics Panel In this report, the advance planning for an interstellar probe was ranked eighth of nine NASA requirements.
Mewaldt notes that the NASA's Heliophysics Department – which would oversee an interstellar mission – receives the least funding from any agency's science departments. Interstellar probe could fare better if the planners receive confirmation from the planetary scientific community that could benefit from flying past the icy giants or through the Kuiper Belt. However, the scientific world is usually silly, making it difficult to finance missions across multiple NASA divisions.
Even as the project progresses, it is not clear how a spaceship could survive the solar flyby. The best heat shield humans have ever built and currently flying on the NASA's Parker Solar Probe is designed to protect a spacecraft within 3.8 million miles of the sun's surface. To achieve the desired speed, the interstellar probe would have to be more than twice as close.
"For every big mission there is a moment, almost an aha moment, when the technology is done and you have a plan and it makes sense and will answer the scientific questions," says Nicky Fox, director of NASA for heliophysics. The problem of the heat shield is still between the interstellar probe and this moment.
On the other hand, she says, for every great mission, there comes a moment when scientists simply decide that now is the right time to try.  Another question arises about the mission, which goes beyond budget and bureaucracy problems and the limits of what people can achieve.
By 2050 – the year the probe would reach the interstellar medium – the United Nations Intergovernmental Mission The Panel on Climate Change has predicted that the global average temperature will already be more than 2 degrees Celsius higher than in pre-industrial times , If the world does not drastically reduce its carbon footprint, we are facing a future where cities will sink below a meter high sea level or heat up unbearably. However, most major issuers are far from being able to meet their climate targets.
Rarely is the gap between what the world can do and what it will do so vast.
You just can not wait for the future to come. "
But perhaps, according to Mandt, it's exactly what it's worth trying to get, an apparent audacity of an interstellar mission.
"This would be an example of a large group of people working together on something that spans generations," she says. "That's the same thing we need in climate change."
Members of the Interstellar Probe team range from scholarship holders who have just attained university entrance qualification to those who are not retiring. They come from at least eight countries. These include planetary scientists, astronomers, engineers and a particle physicist.
Last fall, Mandt Janet Vertesi from Princeton, who had conducted ethnographic studies on spacecraft teams, invited the team to discuss organizational issues. It is the first time that a sociologist is involved in designing a NASA mission.
Their job is to "remind them of the human side," says Vertesi: How to resolve conflicts. Where is data stored? So get in touch so that the demographic data of today's project team reflects the more diverse nation that the probe will bring to market over the coming decades.
also has certain social goals, "says Vertesi.
In these "uncertain times," she adds, it's an intoxicating feeling to engage in something that is inherently optimistic. As a computer, calculate the exact position of the planets on the date in 50 years. To see how scientists spend the rest of their careers on an idea whose realization they may never experience again.
"These people just can not wait for the future to come."
In his Maryland office, McNutt turns away from the unfinished plan on his computer screen, trying to visualize the moment when the interstellar probe hits the computer Empty space between the stars.
There is no way to know what she will find out of the veil of the solar wind there. But he is sure of that.
When the probe turns to Earth to return the data it collects, it will be targeting "one of the most special places in the universe," says McNutt, the small, watery world in which it was first dreamed.