NASA spacecraft ready to explore outer solar system

October 6, 2008
Artist's Impression of NASA's IBEX
An artist's impression of NASA's IBEX spacecraft exploring the edge of our solar system. Credit: NASA/GSFC

The first NASA spacecraft to image and map the dynamic interactions taking place where the hot solar wind slams into the cold expanse of space is ready for launch Oct. 19. The two-year mission will begin from the Kwajalein Atoll, a part of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Called the Interstellar Boundary Explorer or IBEX, the spacecraft will conduct extremely high-altitude orbits above Earth to investigate and capture images of processes taking place at the farthest reaches of the solar system. Known as the interstellar boundary, this region marks where the solar system meets interstellar space.

"The interstellar boundary regions are critical because they shield us from the vast majority of dangerous galactic cosmic rays, which otherwise would penetrate into Earth's orbit and make human spaceflight much more dangerous," said David J. McComas, IBEX principal investigator and senior executive director of the Space Science and Engineering Division at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

The story of the outer solar system began to unfold when the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecrafts left the inner solar system and headed out toward the boundary between our solar system and interstellar space.

"The Voyager spacecraft are making fascinating observations of the local conditions at two points beyond the termination shock that show totally unexpected results and challenge many of our notions about this important region," said McComas.

Other spacecraft have continued the exploration of the interstellar boundary region. Recently, a pair of NASA sun-focused satellites, the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory mission, detected a higher-energy version of the particles IBEX will observe in the heliosphere. The heliosphere is an area that contains the solar wind. It stretches from the sun to a distance several times the orbit of Pluto.

IBEX is poised to thoroughly map this interstellar boundary region of the solar system. The images will allow scientists to understand the global interaction between our sun and the galaxy for the very first time.

IBEX will be launched aboard a Pegasus rocket dropped from under the wing of an L-1011 aircraft flying over the Pacific Ocean. The Pegasus will carry the spacecraft approximately 130 miles above Earth and place it in orbit.

"What makes the IBEX mission unique is that it has an extra kick during launch," said Willis Jenkins, IBEX program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "An extra solid-state motor pushes the spacecraft further out of low-Earth orbit where the Pegasus launch vehicle leaves it."

Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Explore further: Scientists provide new tools for predicting arrival, impact of solar storms

Related Stories

Stealing Sedna

August 7, 2015

Turns out, our seemly placid star had a criminal youth of cosmic proportions.

NASA craft discovers heart shape on Pluto as flyby nears

July 12, 2015

There's a near-perfect heart shape on Pluto's rusty red surface which scientists are seeing for the first time as a piano-sized NASA spacecraft, New Horizons, hurtles toward the distant body on its way toward a historic flyby ...

Neptune's badly behaved magnetic field

July 8, 2015

Combining 26-year old data with supercomputer simulations, a team of scientists at Imperial College London have modelled Neptune's magnetic field in detail for the first time. The researchers find that the furthest planet ...

Heliophysicist waits nearly 10 years for Pluto flyby

July 8, 2015

When NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto flies past the distant, icy world on July 14, NASA heliophysicist Nikolaos Paschalidis will be one happy man: he created a mission-enabling technology that will help uncover details ...

Recommended for you

At Saturn, one of these rings is not like the others

September 2, 2015

When the sun set on Saturn's rings in August 2009, scientists on NASA's Cassini mission were watching closely. It was the equinox—one of two times in the Saturnian year when the sun illuminates the planet's enormous ring ...

New Horizons team selects potential Kuiper Belt flyby target

August 29, 2015

NASA has selected the potential next destination for the New Horizons mission to visit after its historic July 14 flyby of the Pluto system. The destination is a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69 that orbits ...

Prawn Nebula: Cosmic recycling

September 2, 2015

Dominating this image is part of the nebula Gum 56, illuminated by the hot bright young stars that were born within it. For millions of years stars have been created out of the gas in this nebula, material which is later ...

Image: Hubble sees a youthful cluster

August 31, 2015

Shown here in a new image taken with the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) on board the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope is the globular cluster NGC 1783. This is one of the biggest globular clusters in the Large Magellanic ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Thadieus
1 / 5 (3) Oct 06, 2008
wqeqw

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.