(ORDO NEWS) — China is developing a mission to send a pair of spacecraft to explore the far reaches of the solar system and enter interstellar space by mid-century.
The project aims to send individual spacecraft into the nose and tail of the heliosphere, an area of space dominated by the solar wind generated by our Sun, to study specific regions of this bubble and how it interacts with the interstellar medium.
Wu Weiren, a senior official at China’s lunar exploration project, said scientists are working on a plan for the mission.
Wu says the mission aims to reach 100 astronomical units from Earth by 2049, when the People’s Republic of China celebrates its centenary.
A launch date was not given to Wu, but an overview of the proposed mission presented to the European Congress of Planetary Science in 2019 indicates that Chinese heliospheric probes will be launched in 2024. The first will have to fly around Jupiter in 2029 before heading towards the nose of the heliosphere.
The second probe will orbit Jupiter in 2033, followed by the ice giant Neptune in 2038. The spacecraft could also potentially launch a small probe shortly before arrival, with the main probe observing its interaction with Neptune’s atmosphere.
The project has some overlap with NASA’s Voyager missions, but the intermediate targets of the probes are limited by the current relative position of the planets. The Voyagers took advantage of a rare planetary alignment to visit all four outer planets. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are now 22.7 and 18.9 billion kilometers (152 and 126 AU) from Earth, respectively.
Therefore, Chinese probes are paying more attention to the heliosphere and interstellar medium, including the study of phenomena such as anomalous cosmic rays and the “hydrogen wall” at the border of the solar system and interstellar space.
Chinese heliospheric probes will take advantage of advances in propulsion and ground stations, as well as long-range space communications, made by the Chinese space industry in recent years. Such progress has recently made it easier for missions to Mars, the return of lunar samples, and the planned mission to Jupiter.
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