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NASA picks SpaceX to launch probe to study interstellar boundary

An artist's illustration of NASA's Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe, a mission to study the interaction of the sun's solar wind with the winds of other stars. It will launch in 2024. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA has tapped SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket to launch a new mission to study the protective bubble around our solar system. 

SpaceX will launch the International Mapping and Acceleration Probe, or IMAP, for NASA in October 2024 under a $109.4 million agreement. The mission will launch from Space Launch Complex 40 pad at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and also carry four smaller payloads, including the moon-bound Lunar Trailblazer probe, NASA officials said in a statement. 

"IMAP will help researchers better understand the boundary of the heliosphere, a magnetic barrier surrounding our solar system," NASA officials wrote in the Sept. 25 statement. "This region is where the constant flow of particles from our sun, called the solar wind, collides with winds from other stars. This collision limits the amount of harmful cosmic radiation entering the heliosphere."

Related: Solar Quiz: How Well Do You Know Our Sun?

IMAP will be stationed at a stable point between the Earth and sun known as the Lagrange 1 point, where it will map the interstellar particles that punch through the heliosphere and study how they're accelerated through space, according to NASA's mission description. The $492 million mission was selected in 2018 as part of NASA's Solar Terrestrial Probes program.

The Lunar Trailblazer probe launching with IMAP is a small spacecraft designed to study water on the moon. A space weather-tracking probe, called the Space Weather Follow-On Lagrange 1 mission, will also launch with IMAP for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

Two other payloads, both heliophysics missions for NASA, will join IMAP on the launch but have not yet been announced, the space agency said. 

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SPACE.COM EDITOR IN CHIEF — Tariq joined the Space.com team in 2001 as a staff writer, and later editor, covering human spaceflight, exploration and space science. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Google+, Twitter and on Facebook.

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