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Spacecraft to map Outer Solar System launched

Artist's impression of our solar system's boundaries. NASA photo

WASHINGTON (BNS): NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer mission, or IBEX, was successfully launched from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean at 1:47 pm EDT on Sunday. IBEX is the first spacecraft to image and map dynamic interactions taking place in the outer Solar System.

Officials at NASA said that the spacecraft separated from the third stage of its Pegasus launch vehicle at 1:53 pm and immediately began powering up components necessary to control onboard systems. The operations team is continuing to check out spacecraft subsystems, they said.

IBEX mission manager Greg Frazier of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said that after a 45-day orbit raising and spacecraft checkout period, the spacecraft would start its exciting science mission.

According to NASA, IBEX will build an image of the outer boundary of the Solar System from impacts on the spacecraft by high-speed particles called energetic neutral atoms. “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,” scientists said.

IBEX Principal Investigator David McComas of the Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio, said that no one has seen an image of the interaction at the edge of the Solar System where the solar wind collides with interstellar space. “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,” McComas said.

The IBEX is the latest in NASA's series of low-cost, rapidly developed Small Explorers spacecraft. The Southwest Research Institute developed the IBEX mission with a team of national and international partners.

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