Feeds

NASA's IBEX to sniff interstellar boundary

Looking beyond the termination shock

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer, aka IBEX, will on 19 October lift off from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands on a mission to probe the interstellar boundary beyond our heliosphere's termination shock1 - a region where "the hot solar wind slams into the cold expanse of space", as NASA nicely puts it.

From an altitude of roughly 200,000 miles (322,00km) at apogee, and beyond interference from the Earth's magnetosphere, IBEX will focus its two single-pixel “cameras” on Energetic Neutral Atoms (ENAs)2 to capture "images of processes taking place at the farthest reaches of the solar system".

Artist's impression of the IBEX spacecraft. Pic: NASA

IBEX principal investigator, David J. McComas, explained: "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."

Indeed, as we recently reported, the Ulysses spacecraft has indicated "the solar wind's global pressure is the lowest we have seen since the beginning of the space age", leading to "an excellent chance the heliosphere will diminish in size and strength".

Ed Smith, NASA's Ulysses project scientist, said: "If that occurs, more galactic cosmic rays will make it into the inner part of our solar system."

McComas noted that venerable spacecraft Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have already left the inner solar system and "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".

However, much remains to be discovered. IBEX will spend the first six months of its nominal two-year mission mapping the entire sky to "reveal the global structure of the heliosheath [see note 1, below] and termination shock for the first time".

IBEX mounted in its Pegasus launch vehicle. Pic: NASA

Before getting down to the task in hand, IBEX will be carried aloft to an altitude of around 130 miles (210km) by a Pegasus rocket (see pic, above) dropped from under an L-1011 aircraft. It'll then fire up its own solid rocket motor to travel out to its final working orbit.

NASA's main IBEX mission page is here, and the agency has a factsheet here (pdf). ®

Notes

1The termination shock is the point in the heliosphere where the solar wind is slowed to subsonic speeds (relative to the emitting star) by interaction with the interstellar medium. Beyond it lie the heliosheath, "a vast expanse of turbulent gas and twisting magnetic fields", and the heliopause, where the wind's particles are no longer energetic enough to advance against rival particles from other stars.

2The two cameras (IBEX-Lo IBEX-Hi) measure ENAs with energies of 10 eV to 2 keV and 300 eV to 6 keV, respectively.

Bootnote

NASA explains that IBEX is "23 inches high x 38 inches across (eightsided shape, like a STOP sign)", or "about the size of a bus tire". Come on, chaps, those are not accepted standards.

Eight steps to building an HP BladeSystem

More from The Register

next story
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 claimed lives of HIV/AIDS cure scientists
Researchers, advocates, health workers among those on shot-down plane
Mwa-ha-ha-ha! Eccentric billionaire Musk gets his PRIVATE SPACEPORT
In the Lone Star State, perhaps appropriately enough
MARS NEEDS OCEANS to support life - and so do exoplanets
Just being in the Goldilocks zone doesn't mean there'll be anyone to eat the porridge
The Sun took a day off last week and made NO sunspots
Someone needs to get that lazy star cooking again before things get cold around here
Diary note: Pluto's close-up is a year from … now!
New Horizons is less than a year from the dwarf planet
Boffins discuss AI space program at hush-hush IARPA confab
IBM, MIT, plenty of others invited to fill Uncle Sam's spy toolchest, but where's Google?
prev story

Whitepapers

Seven Steps to Software Security
Seven practical steps you can begin to take today to secure your applications and prevent the damages a successful cyber-attack can cause.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications
Learn about the various considerations for defending mobile applications - from the application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies.
Build a business case: developing custom apps
Learn how to maximize the value of custom applications by accelerating and simplifying their development.
Consolidation: the foundation for IT and business transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.