New Eye on the Outer Solar System Launches Successfully


There’s a new spacecraft in Earth orbit, with a really “far out” mission: to map the outer solar system. NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer mission, or IBEX launched successfully from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean at 1:47 p.m. EDT, Sunday, from an Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL launch vehicle. IBEX will be the first spacecraft to image and map dynamic interactions taking place in the outer solar system. The two Voyager probes sent back a limited amount of information about the region of space where our solar system ends and interstellar space begins. But beyond that, not much is known about this area. The region is about three times further from the sun than the orbit of planet Pluto. “No one has seen an image of the interaction at the edge of our solar system where the solar wind collides with interstellar space,” said IBEX Principal Investigator David McComas of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “We know we’re going to be surprised.”

The spacecraft separated from the third stage of its Pegasus launch vehicle at 1:53 p.m. and immediately began powering up components necessary to control onboard systems. The operations team is continuing to check out spacecraft subsystems.

“After a 45-day orbit raising and spacecraft checkout period, the spacecraft will start its exciting science mission,” said IBEX mission manager Greg Frazier of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

“The heliosphere’s boundary region is enormous, and the Voyager crossings of the termination shock, while historic, only sampled two tiny areas 10 billion miles (16 billion km) apart,” NASA scientist Eric Christian said.

Voyager 1 passed the inner boundary in 2004 and Voyager 2 crossed over last year.

The solar wind, a stream of electrically conducting gas continuously moving outward from the sun at 1 million mph (1.6 million kph), blows against this interstellar material and forms a huge protective bubble around the solar system. This bubble is called the heliosphere.

As the solar wind reaches far beyond the planets to the solar system’s outer limits, it encounters the edge of the heliosphere and collides with interstellar space. A shock wave is present at this boundary.

“Every six months, we will make global sky maps of where these atoms come from and how fast they are traveling. From this information, we will be able to discover what the edge of our bubble looks like and learn about the properties of the interstellar cloud that lies beyond the bubble,” physicist Herb Funsten of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Sources: NASA, Reuters

17 Replies to “New Eye on the Outer Solar System Launches Successfully”

  1. I’m really looking forward to seeing some results from this mission. It really could tell us a lot, not only about the solar wind, but about the winds from other stars and how they interact with the interstellar medium!

  2. Absolutely awesome…..humanity will make discoveries with this instrument and will be an example for more missions.

    Truly part of the individual experience.

  3. I am so excited about this mission. I was always curios about what happens to the solar winds outside of the Heliosphere

  4. That’s a good point we could find out that long distance space travel is not an option and be appreciative of what we have and take better care of it.

  5. This is excellent. I think the outer solar system is fascinating, and it’s not very well understood. Hopefully this new satellite will give us some amazing surprises. I also hope New Horizons is still at least partially functioning by the time it gets out there.

  6. The “outer solar system” link takes me to “other solar system” – that’s an article about exoplanets…

    Fascinating, every single aspect of this… low budget low orbit launch from an aircraft, then moving the craft most economically into a most incredibly “far out” orbit … there’s been a lot of speculation about what might be out there – is it a violent “stormy ocean” or plain sailing, will a telescope at the “focal distance” of our Sun’s gravity lens be a feasible option… etc…. it’s a first step towards finding answers to questions like these. I’m really curious as to what the results may be.

  7. It could also tell us that we humans are “really” stuck in in our solar system and inter-stellar space travel is very close to impossible 😀 .

  8. How many years are we talking about before IBEX reaches the boundary and any info is returned?

  9. Sounds pretty awesome. I wonder about the Voyager I & II sometimes. Maybe now we can check up on them. One thing though.

    Pluto isn’t a planet anymore remember?

  10. Ricardo asks
    “How many years are we talking about before IBEX reaches the boundary and any info is returned?”

    – It’s not traveling to the boundary, it’s doing measurements of particles coming from there… in an elliptical Earth orbit, up to 200 000 km high – it’ll take about six weeks to reach that orbit.

  11. What interests me most about this mission is if IBEX will be able to discern a non-spheroidal shape of the heliosphere itself. I would expect some lopsided-teardrop shape due to the interaction with the interstellar medium (ISM), and I believe some evidence of this distorted shape already exists from analysis from the Voyager probes. Also, I wonder (if) and how the heliosphere is affected by the 11 year sunspot cycle? Recent data from the Ulysses probe has already alluded to this possibility, so confirmation from IBEX would be most welcome. But I also agree that IBEXs’ greatest accomplishments may come from totally unexpected phenomenon.

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