LOS ALAMOS, N.M., Jan. 28, 2005 -- A new NASA mission, IBEX, will probe the very edge of the solar system, capturing the quiet hum of a vast, distant shock wave. One of its two instruments is a compact Los Alamos device called the High Energy Neutral Atom Imager.
The mission, called the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) satellite, will launch in 2008 and carry two Energetic Neutral Atom cameras (ENAs) out beyond the Earth's magnetosphere, where they will watch for telltale particles ricocheting back across millions of miles from the outer boundary of the solar system.
Our solar system lies in a protective bubble, or cul-de-sac, that is created by material and magnetic fields that flow out of the sun. As the solar wind streams out far beyond Pluto, racing a million miles per hour, it reaches the edge of our bubble and collides with the material between the stars, the interstellar medium. A shock wave forms at that intersection point. The Los Alamos camera is designed to detect the particles that are heated and stream away from that boundary.
"The only emissions from the shock that we can measure at earth are these atoms that have been heated and thrown out from the shock. These atoms are the quiet hum of the distant shock wave," said Herb Funsten, Los Alamos' principal investigator on the instrument.
"The new technology on IBEX will finally let us measure this hum in all directions of the sky and see how it changes over time. This will allow us to understand the properties of the shock and the nature of local interstellar cloud," he said.
The craft itself will be launched on a Pegasus rocket released from an airplane, and the rocket will carry the satellite out to a high-altitude, highly elliptical orbit that will reach 150,000 miles above the Earth.
Said Funsten, "these are baby steps out of our cul-de-sac and into our galactic neighborhood, and I think we are in for some great surprises."
David McComas of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio will lead the IBEX mission, which will cost approximately $134 million. In addition to its boundary-zone studies, the mission will study galactic cosmic rays, energetic particles from beyond the Solar System that pose a health and safety hazard for humans exploring beyond Earth orbit. IBEX will explore how the solar wind regulates this cosmic ray radiation. These observations will be made from a highly elliptical orbit that takes the satellite beyond the interference of the Earth's magnetosphere.
Images from the boundary studies are expected to be released within two years of the launch.
For IBEX, SwRI is partnering with Orbital Science Corporation, Los Alamos National Laboratory, University of California, Riverside, Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the University of New Hampshire, the Applied Physics Laboratory and the University of Southern California. The team also includes a number of American and international scientists from universities and other institutions, as well as Chicago's Adler Planetarium, which is leading education and public outreach for the mission.
For information and illustrations of these missions on the Internet, go to:
Los Alamos National Laboratory is operated by the University of California for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) of the U.S. Department of Energy and works in partnership with NNSA's Sandia and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories to support NNSA in its mission.
Los Alamos develops and applies science and technology to ensure the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent; reduce the threat of weapons of mass destruction, proliferation and terrorism; and solve national problems in defense, energy, environment and infrastructure.
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