On October 19, NASA will launch a new spacecraft named IBEX, short for 'Interstellar Boundary Explorer.' Its mission, which will last about two years, is to refine what the Voyager spacecraft experienced in 2004 when 'an invisible shock formed as the solar wind piles up against the gas in interstellar space.' This IBEX mission will explore what is outside our solar system. As said the project leader, '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.' But read more...
You can see above an "artist's impression of IBEX's launch and deployment." (Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center) Here is a link to a larger version.
This other image shows what the IBEX spacecraft will look when in orbit. (Credit: Walt Feimer, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center) For your viewing pleasure, here are two links to a larger version of this picture and to an IBEX 60-photo gallery.
According to NASA, "the IBEX spacecraft will be launched aboard a Pegasus rocket dropped from under the wing of an L-1011 aircraft flying over the Pacific Ocean. The Pegasus will carry the spacecraft approximately 130 miles above Earth and place it in orbit. [...] The two-year mission will begin from the Kwajalein Atoll, a part of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. 'What makes the IBEX mission unique is that it has an extra kick during launch," said Willis Jenkins, IBEX program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. 'An extra solid-state motor pushes the spacecraft further out of low-Earth orbit where the Pegasus launch vehicle leaves it.'"
For more information, you can look at this NASA page describing an 'Impressionist' Spacecraft to View Solar System's Invisible Frontier and to this document about NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer Mission (PDF format, 2 pages, 689 KB).
This file provides very interesting details about the mission. "'IBEX will let us make the first global observations of the region beyond the termination shock at the very edges of our solar system. This region is critical because it shields out the vast majority of the deadly cosmic rays that would otherwise permeate the space around the Earth and other planets,' says Dr. David J. McComas, IBEX Principal Investigator (PI) from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas. 'IBEX will let us visualize our home in the galaxy for the first time and explore how it may have evolved over the history of the solar system. Ultimately, by making the first images of the interstellar boundaries neighboring our solar system, IBEX will provide a first step toward exploring the galactic frontier.'"
Of course, the IBEX spacecraft will be exposed to cosmic radiation. "It needs to go beyond the region of space controlled by Earth’s magnetic field, called the magnetosphere, because this region generates radiation and the same high-speed atoms (Energetic Neutral Atoms or ENAs) that IBEX will use to make its pictures. To avoid contamination from local ENAs produced in the magnetosphere, IBEX’s orbit will take it up to 200,000 miles from Earth. Six months into the mission, IBEX will have observed the entire sky, and will reveal the global structure of the heliosheath and termination shock for the first time."
You may think that the IBEX will be a big satellite. In fact, it is a small one. Its dimensions are "23 inches high x 38 inches across (eightsided shape, like a STOP sign)." And it will weigh only 80 kg (176 lbs) when empty or 107 kg (236 lbs) with its fuel. Now, let's say good luck to the IBEX mission!
Sources: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center news release, October 6, 2008; and various websites
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