Greenbelt (MD) – NASA launched its Interstellar Boundary Explorer, short IBEX, into high-altitude orbit above Earth to investigate and capture images of processes taking place at the farthest reaches of the solar system – a region where the solar system meets interstellar space - nine billion miles from the sun.
IBEX could be viewed as a result of the fascinating journey of Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft that began in 1977. More than 30 years ago, the two Voyagers were sent on a mission that was originally planned to only take 5-years, but has taken the Voyager 1 spacecraft into the heliosheath (the area beyond the termination shock, see our slideshow for illustrations), about 9.7 billion miles from the sun. Voyager 2 was 7.8 billion miles from the sun at the time and was approaching the heliosheath.
Both spacecraft are on their way to cross the edge of the heliopause - outermost boundary of the solar wind - within the next ten years. In July of this year, NASA scientists used data sent from Voyager 2 to determine the bubble of solar wind surrounding the solar system is not round, but has a squashed shape.
"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.
"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. 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."
To be able to create images, the IBEX needs to travel about 200,000 miles away from Earth and leave the magnetosphere, a region controlled by Earth’s magnetic field, behind. According to NASA, the magnetosphere generates radiation and the same high-speed atoms (Energetic Neutral Atoms or ENAs) that IBEX will use to make its pictures. NASA believes that a “spinning” IBEX will have observed the entire sky after six months and will have revealed the global structure of the heliosheath and termination shock for the first time. “The solar system’s frontier is billions of miles away, so it’s difficult for us to go there, but interesting things happen at boundaries, and with IBEX, we will see them for the first time,” said Robert MacDowall, IBEX Mission Scientist.
Read more about this mission and the future of Voyager 1 and 2 here:
Fascination space: NASA spacecraft ready to explore outer solar system