Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Exploring The Edges Of The Solar System

Date:
March 18, 2005
Source:
University Of Southern California
Summary:
A USC astronautics professor realizes his dream of approaching an uncharted region of space thought to lie billions of miles from the sun. It’s a personal mission, in the making for 25 years.

IBEX will be the first mission to remotely sample the edge of the solar system, an uncharted region of space called the “heliopause,” thought to lie 10 billion to 14 billion miles from the sun.
Credit: Image courtesy of IBEX/SWRI

After 25 years of sweat and tears, USC astronautics professor Mike Gruntman finally has his wish: a chance to probe the very edges of our solar system with a spacecraft that can measure from afar the interactions of the solar wind with interstellar dust and gas.

Gruntman, who is chairman of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Astronautics and Space Technology Division, is a co-investigator on the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX), a mission recently selected by NASA for development and launch in 2008.

IBEX will be the first mission to remotely sample the edge of the solar system, an uncharted region of space called the “heliopause,” which is thought to lie about 10 billion to 14 billion miles from the sun. This is the zone in which the sun’s powerful influence all but disappears and the solar wind slows from 1 million miles per hour to about 250,000 miles per hour.

Scientists believe an invisible “shock front” – called the termination shock – girdles the outer edge of the solar system at this distance. The plasma shock front is created in much the same way that an air shock is formed in front of a supersonic aircraft as it flies through the air.

The wave of plasma deflects ionized interstellar material and shields the solar system from harmful cosmic radiation streaming between the stars. Only two spacecraft in history have operated long enough in space to near that region — Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 — but neither carried the proper instruments to measure in-situ the properties of complicated flow patterns created when the solar wind collides with interstellar matter.

Gruntman has been working on an interstellar mission to explore this tenuous boundary since 1983, when he published his first paper on the concept. His idea was to remotely probe the solar boundary by measuring fluxes of heliospheric energetic neutral atoms.

Along the way, advances in imaging technology brought his ideas into the realm of practicality, and a team of scientists from several institutions came up with a new proposal. They suggested building a simple spinning spacecraft, endowed with a pair of large, ultra-sensitive cameras, to detect energetic neutral atoms produced at the solar system boundary.

The timing was just right.

Many of the IBEX mission instrument requirements were ripe for development and successfully demonstrated on missions in the intervening years, including IMAGE, a satellite designed to image Earth’s magnetosphere.

IBEX builds on some of the technology flown on IMAGE. Once it begins to collect data, IBEX may also help scientists decipher any long-awaited data they could receive from Voyager 1, the likelier of the two Voyagers to reach the termination shock, if it ever does.

The mission’s science goals are central to NASA’s Sun-Earth Connection program: to help scientists understand the connection between the Earth and the sun, and more fundamentally, how the sun and solar wind interact with the galaxy.

“IBEX will make the first global map of the boundary between the solar system and interstellar space, which is about 100 times farther away from the sun than the Earth,” Gruntman said.

“Every four to five days, the spacecraft will travel outside of Earth’s magnetosphere at the farthest point in its orbit and be able to study these neutral atoms streaming from the edge of the solar system.”

In the future, humanity will send spacecraft hurtling far past this planetary edge and into the galactic medium, which is dominated by stellar processes similar to those occurring at the edge of the solar system.

If spacecraft are to survive their journeys into the galaxy, Gruntman said, scientists must know what to expect.

This is the first step, he said, to a precursor mission for future space-faring vehicles that will be heading to very distant places, like Alpha Centauri, our nearest star neighbor.

“Alpha Centauri is just 4.3 light years away,” he said, with matter-of-fact resolve. “It’s not that far-fetched of an idea, and it’s not that far away. One day our starships will be going there.”

Sound incredible?

Ask the IBEX science, hardware and management teams. For the next three years, they will be designing the cameras – two energetic neutral atom imagers – under the direction of mission principal investigator David McComas, a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

Orbital Sciences Corp. in Dulles, Va., will build the spacecraft, a lightweight design based on the company’s MicroStar spacecraft design.

Dozens of these spacecraft are already in orbit, performing communications and remote sensing missions. Launch from a Pegasus rocket will put the spacecraft into a highly elliptical orbit of about 150,000 miles above Earth — or about two-thirds of the distance from the Earth to the moon.

The mission, which costs $134 million, is part of NASA’s Small Explorer (SMEX) program of rapid, small and highly focused science exploration missions, which are designed to further scientific discoveries in astronomy and space physics.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University Of Southern California. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

University Of Southern California. "Exploring The Edges Of The Solar System." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 March 2005. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/03/050310105458.htm>.
University Of Southern California. (2005, March 18). Exploring The Edges Of The Solar System. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 20, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/03/050310105458.htm
University Of Southern California. "Exploring The Edges Of The Solar System." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/03/050310105458.htm (accessed September 20, 2014).

Share This



More Space & Time News

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

MIT BioSuit A New Take On Traditional Spacesuits

MIT BioSuit A New Take On Traditional Spacesuits

Newsy (Sep. 19, 2014) The MIT BioSuit could be an alternative to big, bulky traditional spacesuits, but the concept needs some work. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Boeing, SpaceX to Send Astronauts to Space Station

Boeing, SpaceX to Send Astronauts to Space Station

AFP (Sep. 17, 2014) NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX on Tuesday to build America's next spacecraft to carry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) by 2017, opening the way to a new chapter in human spaceflight. Duration: 01:13 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
East Coast Treated To Rare Meteor Sighting

East Coast Treated To Rare Meteor Sighting

Newsy (Sep. 16, 2014) Numerous residents along the East Coast reported seeing a bright meteor flash through the sky Sunday night. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Space Race Pits Bezos Vs Musk

Space Race Pits Bezos Vs Musk

Reuters - Business Video Online (Sep. 16, 2014) Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' startup will team up with Boeing and Lockheed to develop rocket engines as Elon Musk races to have his rockets certified. Fred Katayama reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins