NASA projects IBEX heavenwards
Spacecraft prepares to sniff interstellar boundary
NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer mission, known to its chums as IBEX, was yesterday successfully projected heavenwards on its mission to "image and map dynamic interactions taking place in the outer solar system".
The spacecraft was carried aloft by a Pegasus rocket released from a L-1011 aircraft (see pic) operating from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific. Following its separation from the rocket's third stage, IBEX "immediately began powering up components necessary to control onboard systems", and the operations team "is continuing to check out spacecraft subsystems".
Mission manager Greg Frazier said: "After a 45-day orbit raising and spacecraft checkout period, the spacecraft will start its exciting science mission."
That mission is to sniff the interstellar boundary beyond our heliosphere's termination shock - a region where "the hot solar wind slams into the cold expanse of space", as NASA previously put it. The agency's latest press release elaborates lyrically: "Just as an impressionist artist makes an image from countless tiny strokes of paint, IBEX will build an image of the outer boundary of the solar system from impacts on the spacecraft by high-speed particles called energetic neutral atoms (ENAs). These particles are created in the boundary region when the 1-million mph solar wind blows out in all directions from the sun and plows into the gas of interstellar space."
IBEX Principal Investigator David McComas chipped in with: "No one has seen an image of the interaction at the edge of our solar system where the solar wind collides with interstellar space. We know we're going to be surprised. It's a little like getting the first weather satellite images. Prior to that, you had to infer the global weather patterns from a limited number of local weather stations. But with the weather satellite images, you could see the hurricanes forming and the fronts developing and moving across the country."
IBEX will operate for a nominal two years from an altitude of 200,000 miles (322,00km) at apogee, using a pair of single-pixel “cameras” (IBEX-Lo IBEX-Hi) to detect ENAs with energies of 10 eV to 2 keV and 300 eV to 6 keV, respectively. NASA has a mission factsheet here (pdf). ®
Yup, the Pegasus is the first commercial satellite launch vehicle!
President Bush awarded the team with a medal for developing it.
The FIRST President Bush. When he was President. Around 20 years ago.
The Pegasus is orbital too, while the SSO is sub-orbital only.
Now here's the difference.
SSO was the first privately funded, privately developed, manned, reusable space-craft.
A manned spacecraft is a lot bigger than the Pegasus' payload. The Pegasus can only launch small sats.
SSO _cannot_ attain orbit. It is suborbital.
The NASA X-15 is very similar in concept and predates SSO by many deacdes.
SSO has an excellent turnaround time and is cheap to build, own and operate.
All this means that the upcomming, biggie-sized SSTwo will be able to provide (relatively) cheap, commercial suborbital _joyrides_ to "space", featuring several minutes of weightlessness.
This is not technologically special; we started doing this in the 60s with Mercury which later achieve true orbit.
It also doesn't take you anywhere. It's a $200,000 flight that takes you back to where you started. It is strictly a joyride.
Having said all that, people are excited at the prospect of this business taking off and leading to something bigger, and the idea of opening up space to the public. Their goal is to make a profitable business and bring the price down so more people can do it.
Having said all that, the fact that it drops off a jet is not the most significant thing (though it's probably important to reliable operation in spite of weather.)
Dropping rockets off jets has been done for a LONG time. Even selling seats to the space station has been going on for a while if you have 20 to 30 mil.
Back to the Pegasus for a moment, the Pegasus originally started at about 6 million a flight. It was hailed as opening up sat launch to the masses. It basically came off exactly like the SpaceX Falcon 1.
Then reality hit and the price went up to 30 and now nobody even remembers.
Case in point.
So if this thing can reach a high orbit after being dropped from a plane, what's the big deal about Space Ship One's delivery method? Seems less of a big deal now.
Shuttleworth was right...
It really is an Intrepid IBEX. And there's the Linux link.