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The outer limits

Travel to the stars has been a dream of science-fiction writers since the 1920s. Now scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California are saluting sci-fi giants such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein with big plans to launch the first, targeted interstellar robot spacecraft sometime after the year 2014.

While no humans will be onboard the proposed Innovative Interstellar Explorer probe, or simply IIE, this Voyager-sized craft will be like a rapid transit to the stars. IIE will bypass its "slower" moving interstellar-bound 20th century ancestors, Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager 1 and 2. These 1970s-era spacecraft are currently on the edge of where our Sun's influence drops up and the vast deeps of interstellar space begins. The Voyagers have been reconfigured and currently form the Voyager Interstellar Mission, but IIE ultimately surpass these star-trekking geezers by the year 2029.

Powered by a compact, high-tech power unit that will provide onboard juice for nearly a century, IIE will reach 200 A.U.s in 15 years.

What's an A.U.? A.U. is a space-distance measurement short for astronomical unit. For a reference point, think of Earth as being located 1 A.U. (or 93 million miles) from the Sun; so IIE's goal is to reach interstellar space at a distance of 200 A.U.s from the Sun-that's a long, strange trip from the green hills of Earth. Assisting its nuclear power source, IIE will call upon the powerful gravitational field of the planet Jupiter to fling itself ever deeper into interstellar space.

The primary goal of IIE will be to pass through a region at the edge of the solar system called the heliopause, the place where our Sun's influence ends and interstellar space actually begins. The probe will then use instruments to explore the nature of the interstellar medium-especially cosmic dust and rays-and its implications for the formation of the galaxy.

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