Europlanet Science Congress 2020
Virtual meeting
21 September – 9 October 2020
Europlanet Science Congress 2020
Virtual meeting
21 September – 9 October 2020
EPSC Abstracts
Vol.14, EPSC2020-544, 2020
Europlanet Science Congress 2020
© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

The Interstellar Probe Study – A Year 2 Update

Ralph McNutt1, Robert Wimmer-Schweingruber2, Mike Gruntman3, Stamatios Krimigis1,4, Edmond Roelof1, Pontus Brandt1, Kathleen Mandt1, Steven Vernon1, Michael Paul1, Robert Stough5, and James Kinnison1
Ralph McNutt et al.
  • 1Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Space Exploration Sector, Laurel, Maryland, United States of America
  • 2Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel, Germany (
  • 3University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California USA (
  • 4Office of Space Research and Technology, Academy of Athens, Athens, Greece
  • 5NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Spacecraft / Payload Integration and Evolution (SPIE) Office Huntsville, Alabama, USA (

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) has been tasked by the NASA Heliophysics Division to (re-)study a robotic Interstellar Probe mission. The top-level requirement is to provide input to support the next Solar and Space Physics “Decadal Survey” in the United States, with a nominal time frame of performance from 2023 to 2032.

The study approach is to look widely across both relevant scientific and technical communities and assemble a “Menu” of what has been, and what can be, done with respect to Interstellar Probe desires and concepts past. By its nature this assemblage is a “superset” of what might be implemented; “ordering” from the menu will be a charge to a future Science Definition Team – at NASA’s discretion. This approach has been adopted successfully in the past, with the emphasis on informing the Survey participants of valid possibilities, while not dictating a “best” solution.

The components of such a menu are not random. They must flow from compelling top-level science goals, through explicit measurement requirements, instrumentation to make those measurements, and an assessment of how those measurements have provided “closure” to the investigation, i.e. have addressed the science goals.

For this type of engineering “menu” study, payload instrument possibilities and capabilities, with representative masses and power requirements, are required to help assess the overall spacecraft cost, mass, and achievable speed for a given launch vehicle configuration. Details have and will continue to evolve as the engineering aspects mature and as more people throughout the international scientific community continue to contribute their ideas.

Neither critical trade-offs nor enabling technologies are new. For example, with a given launch system, the total energy that can be imparted to the spacecraft is fixed. Thus, with a given set of planetary gravity assists there is a trade between the maximum asymptotic escape speed from the Sun and the total mass of the spacecraft, which, in turn, tends to scale with the payload mass. As a starting point, a range of spacecraft masses from ~300 to 800 kg, corresponding roughly to Pioneer (251.8 kg) through Voyager (825.4 kg), has been considered. Communication has focused on microwave downlink (X-band or Ka-band), which is well developed, known, and robust. While optical laser comm might achieve far higher downlink rates, it requires extreme pointing stability, and the associated lifetime also needs continuing investigation. The need and capability for radioisotope power systems (RPS) for powering deep-space robotic spacecraft operating far from the Sun is well established  and will be required here as well. Also, in this study the use of the Space Launch System (SLS) cargo version is in use along with upper stages. Other “lunar capable” launch vehicles have also been “spot checked,” but more complete performance data is needed from their respective vendors for a definitive assessment.

As with any other study of this type, initial engineering requirements must be imposed to begin an inherently iterative process of design. Engineering requirements are needed to frame the engineering study and “bound the box” – but allow for trades. As with other aspects of this study, these are also still evolving:

(1)       Enable a mission that can be launched no later than 1 January 2030 (technology driver)

(2)       Have the capability to operate from a maximum range of not less than (NLT) 1000 astronomical units (a.u.) from the Sun (communications system driver)

(3)       Require no more than 600 Watts of electrical power (We) at the beginning of mission (BOM) and be able to operate at no less than half of the BOM amount at the end of mission (EOM) (power system driver)

(4)       Achieve a mission lifetime of NLT 50 years with an “acceptable” probability of success (drives parts program, physics of failure analyses, programmatics, and policy)

Given the requirement of near-term flight, we focus entirely upon ballistic solutions with Jupiter Gravity Assists (JGA) in order to maximize the asymptotic solar system escape speed. Three options are under study: The first two use prograde gravity assists at Jupiter, one passive and one active with an upper stage burn in Jupiter’s gravity well; the third uses a retrograde gravity assist and a powered “Oberth maneuver” near the Sun.

The current focus is upon a medium-mass, all-heliophysics payload to obtain a first cut of basic architecture approach and initial subsystem master equipment list (MEL) with power requirements and margins and reserves, as appropriate. This is being used to size the communication system, avionics, and guidance and control and data systems. It will also serve as a baseline for looking at both upscale and downscale payload and capability options, and trades with planetary and astrophysics science options, including effects on required spacecraft concept of operations and the payload mass, power, and cost tradespaces.

The current effort is well into this initial concept definition via seven focus studies:

  • 1) Longevity - Spacecraft lifetimes/failures, long-lasting systems, failure modes, ground operations, staff renewal, and knowledge documentation and retention
  • 2) Instruments - Candidate payload components with parameters + operating requirements
  • 3) Trajectory and launch vehicle trades including Jupiter’s radiation and dust ring keep-out zone(s)
  • 4) Communication and guidance and control trades, achievable pointing accuracy
  • 5) Thermal shield requirements and possibilities for a near-Sun maneuver, including quantifying shield mass, radiation pressure effects, and center-of-mass migration and attitude control requirements during a near-Sun, rocket-motor burn
  • 6) Overall mechanical layout, fairing clearances, payload adaptors, instrument clear fields of view, boom and antenna options, deployments, and associated pointing control
  • 7) Power requirements, including payload and spacecraft systems, parasitic heating of propellant lines, surge capability trades, and shunt requirements for use with a Next Generation (NG)-RPS

The study continues to solicit input on all of these topics from the space science and engineering communities via meetings and workshops. We remain on track for delivering the final report to NASA’s Heliophysics Division in late calendar year 2021.

How to cite: McNutt, R., Wimmer-Schweingruber, R., Gruntman, M., Krimigis, S., Roelof, E., Brandt, P., Mandt, K., Vernon, S., Paul, M., Stough, R., and Kinnison, J.: The Interstellar Probe Study – A Year 2 Update, Europlanet Science Congress 2020, online, 21 September–9 Oct 2020, EPSC2020-544,, 2020