IBEX was launched into high-orbit aboard an air launched Pegasus rocket over the Pacific Ocean. Its schedule consists of a two-year mission, and its main goal is helping researchers learn more about solar wind. The reason for this specific timing is that solar wind is currently at its lowest point in the past 50 years. The mission, estimated at a cost of $165 million, is conducted mainly at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.
Solar wind is a stream of charged particles (plasma) ejected from the upper atmosphere of the sun. It consists mostly of electrons and protons with low energy levels. These particles are able to escape the Sun’s gravity because of the high temperature of the corona and the high kinetic energy that particles posses. However, currently the process which enables the particles to gain such a high kinetic energy is not fully understood. One familiar phenomena solar wind is involved with are the Northern Lights (Aurora) and the plasma tails of comets that always point away from the sun.
Most of the IBEX objectives include imaging, since the ultimate goal is mapping the heliosphere, which is the main region containing the solar wind (and the entire solar magnetic field). David McComas, principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute, explained the critical need for solar wind study: “The interstellar boundary regions are critical because they shield us from the vast majority of dangerous galactic cosmic rays, which otherwise would penetrate into Earth’s orbit and make human spaceflight much more dangerous.”
If the IBEX mission succeeds, researchers will be able to study incoming cosmic rays and outbound solar particles in an attempt to better understand what happens there. Because the interstellar medium is part of the galaxy as a whole, it is actually quite a harsh environment. According to the research team, the high motivation to explore this subject is partly due to the dangerous nature of the high-energy galactic radiation, which could be hazardous to most living beings.
TFOT has also covered other NASA missions, such as the “Solar Probe Plus” mission, which aims to send a spaceship to the Sun, and MAVEN, which will help determine the current state of Mars’ upper atmosphere, ionosphere and interactions with the solar wind. Other related TFOT stories include the brightest flare ever seen from a normal star other than our Sun, observed by NASA’s Swift satellite on April 2008, and the Hinode X-Ray Telescope observation of the Solar Corona, made on December 2006.
For more information about the launch of the IBEX mission, see NASA’s press release.