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SpaceX’s multimillion-dollar NASA contract to enable the agency to study dangerous solar radiation

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) awarded SpaceX a multi-million dollar contract for the agency’s monitoring and data collection mission to further study the region of space created by the winds of the Sun that shield the solar system from cosmic radiation emitted by other stars. This contract will allow NASA to launch the IMAP (Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration) satellite which began development in 2018 after NASA announced it a year earlier, with launch scheduled for 2024.

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In addition to the IMAP spacecraft, the mission will also include four secondary payloads. Two of these will also be heliophysical missions, with the third and fourth intended to monitor the influence that solar winds could have on terrestrial telecommunications networks and to study the lunar surface for water. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Full Thrust launch vehicle will be used to launch all of these payloads, with NASA estimating the cost of the contract at approximately $ 109.4 million. In addition to covering the mission launch costs, this amount will also cover other costs which may cover payload integration, payload management and services provided to the space agency.

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The Falcon 9 Full Thrust is the first SpaceX variant of the widely popular launch vehicle range that managed to successfully land its first phase booster in 2015. This ability has allowed SpaceX to gain significant market share for cargo. both commercial and government earnings, with the United States Department of Defense (DOD) also switching to the reusable variant earlier this month. The latest variant of this vehicle is SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Block 5 launch system which uses nine Merlin 1D + gas generators, RP-1 turboprop rocket engines for the first stage, and a Merlin 1D vacuum engine for the second stage. .

More importantly, the vehicle is SpaceX’s first to integrate NASA’s requirements for crew safety for the agency’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) which saw astronauts Robert Benken and Douglas Hurley take to the air at the start. of this year. It also features redesigned fuel tanks for its second (upper) stage that were responsible for the Falcon 9 explosion at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center launchpad in 2016 which resulted in the destruction of a $ 200 million Israeli-owned satellite. Aerospace Industries (IAI).

NASA’s IMAP mission will study the interaction of the interstellar medium with the solar winds of the Sun and the movement of particles within the solar wind. In the photo above is the heliosphere agency map, which is a “ bubble ” of solar winds encapsulating the solar system and Pluto, with the locations of the Voyager spacecraft in 2018 marked at the edges of the heliosphere. Image: JPL / NASA

The IMAP mission will be a spinning stabilized Sun tracking satellite that will orbit the star at Lagrange’s L1 point between the Sun and Earth. These satellites orient themselves towards the Sun and use rotation as a stabilization mechanism to control altitude. Lagrange points refer to the five points between two orbiting bodies where their gravity is zero and the object positioned at these coordinates requires less fuel to maintain its trajectory.

The L1 point that NASA has chosen for the IMAP satellite will allow the spacecraft to have an uninterrupted view of the Sun thanks to its orientation and to detect solar radiation just hours before they reach Earth. It is also expected to “orbit” around the L1 point instead of positioning itself at the precise coordinates of the point due to problems with the radiation if done otherwise. These orbits are referred to as Lissajous “halo” orbits, and those around L1, L2 and L3 are inherently unstable and therefore require the orbiting bodies to use propulsion systems to maintain orbital parameters.

After its launch in October 2024, the IMAP spacecraft will travel approximately one million mines in the inner solar system to reach its destination at L1. It is estimated that this journey will take a couple of months, after which it will use the onboard thruster to position itself in Lissajous’s orbit around L1. Following this procedure, its solar panels and axis of rotation will be facing the sun while its communication apparatus will be facing the Earth.

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The five Lagrangian points are shown above. NASA’s IMAP spacecraft will orbit point L1 which lies between the Earth and the Sun. Image: Wikimedia Commons

While positioned in the inner solar system, the spacecraft will allow NASA to understand the acceleration of solar wind particles at the edge of the heliosphere. It will achieve this through ten onboard tools that will vary in their functions. These will range from detecting atoms that make up solar radiation, to detecting charged particles that make up solar winds, and instruments that will be able to study magnetic fields, interstellar dust, and ultraviolet light radiated from a neutral hydrogen atom.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 will launch the mission in October 2024 on its current schedule, with IMAP marking another NASA contract win for the company. Unlike the company’s competitor United Launch Alliance, which secures most of its orders from the United States Air Force, and now potentially the Space Force, SpaceX has always been the focus of close collaboration with NASA. Launch contract data for 2005-2018 reveals that NASA’s contracts with the company exceeded $ 1.5 billion, which dwarfed the ~ $ 500 million worth of contracts ULA secured from the USAF.

The Lunar Trailblazer mission (SIMPLEx 5), a small satellite developed by the California Institute of Technology, will orbit the lunar surface at an altitude of 100 kilometers and will allow researchers to create a 100-meter / pixel high-resolution map of the lunar surface. showing the regions. with water and conditions favorable to its existence. This will form a key part of NASA’s Artemis program which intends to place astronauts on the lunar surface by 2024. T

The Artemis program is currently hanging by a thread as Congress dwells on NASA’s clearance bill that could potentially stretch the program’s timeline to a 2028 lunar landing, an event that can potentially leave the lunar surface open to the open. exploration by global space agencies before NASA sets foot there.

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