Interstellar Boundary Explorer

Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) is a NASA satellite in Earth orbit that uses Energetic Neutral Atoms (ENAs) to image the interaction region between the Solar System and interstellar space. The mission is part of NASA's Small Explorer program and was launched with a Pegasus-XL rocket on October 19, 2008.[3]

Interstellar Boundary Explorer
NamesExplorer 91
Mission typeAstronomy
COSPAR ID2008-051A
SATCAT no.33401
Mission durationPlanned: 2 years
Elapsed: 11 years, 8 months, 3 days
Spacecraft properties
ManufacturerOrbital Sciences
Launch mass107 kg (236 lb)[1]
Dry mass80 kg (176 lb)[1]
Payload mass26 kg (57 lb)[1]
Dimensions95 × 58 cm (37 × 23 in)[1]
Power66 W (116 W max)[1]
Start of mission
Launch dateOctober 19, 2008, 17:47:23 (2008-10-19UTC17:47:23Z) UTC
RocketPegasus XL
Launch siteStargazer, Bucholz Airfield
ContractorOrbital Sciences
Entered serviceJanuary 2009[1]
Orbital parameters
Reference systemGeocentric
RegimeHigh Earth
Semi-major axis202,811 km (126,021 mi)
Perigee altitude62,855 km (39,056 mi)
Apogee altitude330,008 km (205,057 mi)
Period13962.6 min
Argument of perigee22.5731°
Mean anomaly356.6008°
Mean motion0.095053 rev/day
Epoch11 June 2017 20:05:05 UTC[2]
Revolution no.393
Explorers program

The mission is led by Dr. David J. McComas (IBEX Principal Investigator), formerly of the Southwest Research Institute and now with Princeton University. The Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center built the IBEX-Hi and IBEX-Lo sensors respectively. The Orbital Sciences Corporation manufactured the spacecraft bus and was the location for spacecraft environmental testing. The nominal mission baseline duration was two years after commissioning, and the prime ended in early 2011. The spacecraft and sensors are still healthy and the mission is continuing in its extended mission.[4]

IBEX is in a Sun-oriented spin-stabilized orbit around the Earth.[5] In June 2011, IBEX was shifted to a new, more efficient, much more stable orbit.[6] It does not come as close to the Moon in the new orbit, and expends less fuel to maintain its position.[6]

Science Goal

The Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) mission science goal is to discover the nature of the interactions between the solar wind and the interstellar medium at the edge of our solar system.[7] IBEX has achieved this goal by generating full sky maps of the intensity (integrated over the line-of-sight) of ENAs in a range of energies every six months. Most of these ENAs are generated in the heliosheath, which is the region of interaction.



The IBEX satellite was mated to its Pegasus XL rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and the combined vehicle was then suspended below the Lockheed L-1011 Stargazer mother airplane and flown to Kwajalein Atoll in the Central Pacific Ocean.[8] Stargazer arrived at Kwajalein on Sunday, October 12, 2008.[7]

The IBEX satellite was carried into space on October 19, 2008, by the Pegasus XL rocket. The rocket was released from Stargazer, which took off from Kwajalein, at 17:47:23 UTC.[3] By launching from this site close to the Equator, the Pegasus rocket lifted as much as 16 kg (35 lb) more mass to orbit than it would have with a launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.[9]

Mission profile

The IBEX satellite, initially launched into a highly-elliptical transfer orbit with a low perigee, used a solid fuel rocket motor as its final boost stage at apogee, in order to raise its perigee greatly and to achieve its desired high-altitude elliptical orbit.

IBEX is in a highly-eccentric elliptical terrestrial orbit, which ranges from a perigee of about 86,000 km (53,000 mi) to an apogee of about 260,000 km (160,000 mi).[2] Its original orbit was about 7,000 by 320,000 km (4,300 by 198,800 mi)[5]—that is, about 80% of the distance to the Moon—which has changed primarily due to an intentional adjustment to prolong the spacecraft's useful life (see Orbit adjusted below).

This very high orbit allows the IBEX satellite to move out of the Earth's magnetosphere when making scientific observations. This extreme altitude is critical due to the amount of charged-particle interference that would occur while taking measurements within the magnetosphere. When within the magnetosphere of the Earth (70,000 km or 43,000 mi), the satellite also performs other functions, including telemetry downlinks.[10]

Orbit adjusted

In June 2011 IBEX shifted to a new orbit that raised its perigee to more than 30,000 kilometres (19,000 mi). The new orbit has a period of one third of a lunar month, which, with the correct phasing, avoids taking the spacecraft too close to the Moon, whose gravity can negatively affect IBEX's orbit. Now the spacecraft uses less fuel to maintain a stable orbit, increasing its useful lifespan to more than 40 years.[6]


IBEX Lo sensor

The heliospheric boundary of the Solar System is being imaged by measuring the location and magnitude of charge-exchange collisions occurring in all directions. The satellite's payload consists of two energetic neutral atom (ENA) imagers, IBEX-Hi and IBEX-Lo. Each consists of a collimator that limits their fields-of-view, a conversion surface to convert neutral hydrogen and oxygen into ions, an electrostatic analyzer (ESA) to suppress ultraviolet light and to select ions of a specific energy range, and a detector to count particles and identify the type of each ion. Both of these sensors are a single-pixel camera with a field-of-view of roughly 7° x 7°. The IBEX-Hi instrument is recording particle counts in a higher energy band (300 eV to 6 keV) than the IBEX-Lo energy band (10 eV to 2 keV). The scientific payload also includes a Combined Electronics Unit (CEU) that controls the voltages on the collimator and the ESA, and it reads and records data from the particle detectors of each sensor.[11]


Compared to other space observatories, IBEX has a low data transfer rate due to the limited requirements of the mission.[12]

... IBEX data transfer rates are slow compared with other telescopes due to the nature of the data it collects. IBEX does not need a "high speed" connection, since it only has the opportunity to collect up to a few particles per minute. Communication from the satellite to the ground is 20 times slower than a typical home cable modem (320,000 bits per second [is the satellite's transfer speed[13]]), and from the ground to the satellite only 2,000 bits per second, which is 250 times slower! Once the signal is collected by the receivers on Earth it is carried over the internet to Mission Control Center in Dulles, VA and to the IBEX Science Operation Center in San Antonio, TX."

NASA's IBEX Q and A[12]


Data collection

High-energy map of the heliosphere
The ribbon of ENA emissions seen in the IBEX map

IBEX is collecting energetic neutral atom (ENA) emissions that are traveling through the Solar System to Earth that cannot be measured by conventional telescopes. These ENAs are created on the boundary of our Solar System by the interactions between solar wind particles and interstellar medium particles.[14]

On the average IBEX-Hi detects about 500 particles per day, and IBEX-Lo, less than 100.[15] By 2012, over 100 scientific papers related to IBEX were published, described by the PI as "an incredible scientific harvest".[15]

Data Availability

As the IBEX data is validated, the IBEX data is made available in a series of data releases on the SWRI IBEX Public Data website (see External Links below). In addition, the data is periodically sent to the NASA Space Physics Data Facility (SPDF), which is the official archive site for IBEX data. SPDF data can be searched at the Heliophysics Data Portal (see External Links below).

Science results

Initial data revealed a previously unpredicted "very narrow ribbon that is two to three times brighter than anything else in the sky".[16] Initial interpretations suggest that "the interstellar environment has far more influence on structuring the heliosphere than anyone previously believed".[14] It is unknown what is creating the ENA (energetic neutral atoms) ribbon.[17] The Sun is currently traveling through the Local Interstellar Cloud, and the heliosphere's size and shape are key factors in determining its shielding power from cosmic rays. Should IBEX detect changes in the shape of the ribbon, that could show how the heliosphere is interacting with the Local Fluff.[18] It has also observed ENAs from the Earth's magnetosphere.[4]

In October 2010, significant changes were detected in the ribbon after six months, based on the second set of IBEX observations.[19]

It went on to detect neutral atoms from outside the Solar System, which were found to differ in composition from the Sun.[20] Surprisingly, IBEX discovered that the heliosphere has no bow shock, and it measured its speed relative to the local interstellar medium (LISM) as 23.2 km/s (52,000 mph), improving on the previous measurement of 26.3 km/s (59,000 mph) by Ulysses.[21] Those speeds equate to 25% less pressure on the Sun's heliosphere than previously thought.[20][21]

In July 2013, IBEX results revealed a 4-lobed tail on the Solar System's heliosphere.[22]

See also


  1. "IBEX (Interstellar Boundary Explorer)". eoPortal. European Space Agency. Retrieved August 13, 2015.
  2. "IBEX – Orbit". Heavens Above. June 11, 2017. Retrieved April 2, 2018.
  3. Ray, Justin (October 19, 2008). "Mission Status Center: Pegasus/IBEX". Spaceflight Now. Retrieved November 27, 2009.
  4. "Archived Updates". Southwest Research Institute.
  5. "Fact Sheet: IBEX" (PDF). Orbital ATK. FS001_06_3695. Archived from the original (PDF) on March 16, 2015. Retrieved April 27, 2015.
  6. McComas, Dave (November 14, 2011). "IBEX Orbit-Raising Maneuver". Southwest Research Institute. Retrieved March 1, 2012.
  7. "Interstellar Boundary Explorer Mission". NASA. October 14, 2008.
  8. Diller, George (October 3, 2008). "Expendable Launch Vehicle Status Report". NASA. ELV-100308.
  9. McComas, Dave (November 2006). "Janet Ball, Lockheed Martin Space Systems". Southwest Research Institute. Retrieved November 19, 2009.
  10. "IBEX FAQ". NASA. January 14, 2008. Retrieved January 14, 2019.
  11. "IBEX COSPAR ID 2008-051A". NASA NSSDC. November 28, 2018. Retrieved January 22, 2019.
  12. "IBEX Q and A". NASA. July 25, 2008. Retrieved May 14, 2015.
  14. McComas, Dave (October 15, 2009). "First Science Results from IBEX!". Southwest Research Institute. Retrieved September 5, 2010.
  15. McComas, Dave (October 15, 2012). "3 Years of IBEX Observations". Southwest Research Institute.
  16. Baldwin, Emily (October 15, 2009). "IBEX maps edge of Solar System". Astronomy Now. Retrieved August 14, 2016.
  17. Kerr, Richard A. (October 16, 2009). "Tying Up the Solar System With a Ribbon of Charged Particles". Science. 326 (5951). pp. 350–351. doi:10.1126/science.326_350a.
  18. Phillips, Tony (January 25, 2010). "Mysterious band of particles holds clues to Solar System's future". Cosmos. Archived from the original on October 13, 2016. Retrieved September 5, 2010.
  19. "The Ever-Changing Edge of the Solar System". Astrobiology Magazine. October 2, 2010. Archived from the original on August 23, 2014. Retrieved November 8, 2010.
  20. Zell, Holly, ed. (May 10, 2012). "IBEX Reveals a Missing Boundary At the Edge Of the Solar System". NASA.
  21. Kohler, Susanna (May 14, 2012). "No Shocks for This Bow: IBEX Says We're Wrong". Astrobites. Retrieved August 14, 2016.
  22. Fox, Karen C. (July 10, 2013). "NASA's IBEX Provides First View Of the Solar System's Tail". NASA. Retrieved August 13, 2015.

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