Probing the Final Frontier of the Sun

Written by The Night Sky Guy on October 21, 2008 – 11:46 am -



For years NASA has been chomping at the bits to uncover one of the greatest mysteries surrounding our solar system: Where exactly does it end? Voyagers I and II, launched back in 1977, and still flying out into deep space, are predicted to be somewhere near the boundary of our solar neighbourhood but we don’t know exactly when they’ll reach it. Now the US space agency has launched a new satellite called IBEX, that will use a novel approach to determine where the Sun’s influence ends and interstellar space begins, without even leaving Earth orbit.

Known as the Interstellar Boundary Explorer mission, or IBEX, the probe successfully launched from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean this past Sunday. It has the distinction of being the first spacecraft to image and map dynamic interactions taking place in the outer solar system.

“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. IBEX will build up images of the countour of this outer bubble surrounding the solar system from impacts on the spacecraft by high-speed particles called energetic neutral atoms.

NASA’s press release is saying, “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. This region is important to study because it shields many of the dangerous cosmic rays that would flood the space around Earth.

“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.”

Read more on the IBEX mission website

Posted in Solar System, Space Exploration, Sun | 1,753 Comments »