The Whipple Mission: Exploring the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud
Abstract:Whipple will characterize the small body populations of the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud with a blind occultation survey, detecting objects when they briefly (~1 second) interrupt the light from background stars, allowing the detection of much more distant and/or smaller objects than can be seen in reflected sunlight. Whipple will reach much deeper into the unexplored frontier of the outer solar system than any other mission, current or proposed. Whipple will look back to the dawn of the solar system by discovering its most remote bodies where primordial processes left their imprint.
Specifically, Whipple will monitor large numbers of stars at high cadences (~12,000 stars at 20 Hz to examine Kuiper Belt events; as many as ~36,000 stars at 5 Hz to explore deep into the Oort Cloud, where events are less frequent). Analysis of the detected events will allow us to determine the size spectrum of bodies in the Kuiper Belt with radii as small as ~1 km. This will allow the testing of models of the growth and later collisional erosion of planetesimals in the early solar system. Whipple will explore the Oort Cloud, detecting objects as far out as ~10,000 AU. This will be the first direct exploration of the Oort Cloud since the original hypothesis of 1950.
Whipple is a Discovery class mission that will be proposed to NASA in response to the 2014 Announcement of Opportunity. The mission is being developed jointly by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Jet Propulsion Laboratories, and Ball Aerospace & Technologies, with telescope optics from L-3 Integrated Optical Systems.