All systems go on IBEX spacecraft

NASA engineers are remotely testing systems aboard the IBEX spacecraft on a mission to image and map the edge of the solar system.


NASA engineers are remotely testing systems aboard the IBEX spacecraft on a mission to image and map the edge of the solar system.

And so far, said Eric Christian, program scientist for NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) programme, all systems are go. The computer onboard the spacecraft, which was launched from a Pegasus rocket on Sunday, is already up and running and the batteries are fully charged.

"There are solar cells powering the batteries," said Christian. "The batteries have been topped off already. We're generating more power than it needs at this point."

The spacecraft will focus its attention on the edge of the solar system where the hot solar wind slams into the cold expanse of space, according to NASA. The IBEX images hopefully will help scientists figure out the interaction between our sun and the Milky Way galaxy.

Willis Jenkins, program executive for the IBEX program, said scientists are in the process of testing all the systems that have been powered up.

Jenkins noted that only the scientific equipment is not yet being used. Those systems will be brought online when the craft reaches its ultimate orbit.

Right now, the IBEX craft is orbiting about 140,000 miles above the Earth or half-way to the moon. Both Jenkins and Christian said they are pleasantly surprised that the Pegasus rocket pushed the spacecraft into such a high orbit. Generally, the rocket moves orbiters about 600 miles above the Earth.

The spacecraft has onboard propulsion systems that will move it into its ultimate orbit height of 200,000 miles. The final orbit is about 45,000 miles from the moon's surface.

NASA scientists explained recently that the area they're trying to map is known as the interstellar boundary -- the area where the solar system meets interstellar space.

"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," said David McComas, IBEX principal investigator at NASA, earlier this month.

NASA first began collecting data on the outer reaches of the solar system when Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, launched in 1977, left the inner solar system for a trip toward the boundary. McComas said scientists received "totally unexpected" data from both Voyager spacecrafts, data that disproved many long-held beliefs about the area.

The successful launch of the latest spacecraft is welcome news to NASA, which had announced last Friday that scientists trying to get the Hubble Space Telescope up and running hit another roadblock.

Engineers had hoped to have the 18-year-old orbiting observatory back in working order today after a computer responsible for sending data back to Earth failed late last month. Last Wednesday, a NASA team did a remote switchover from the failed system to an on-board redundant system.

Initial tests showed that the backup system was working well, but the observatory's activation was suspended after they ran into two "anomalies," said Art Whipple, chief of NASA's Hubble systems management office at the Goddard Space Flight Centre, at a press conference late Friday.

Whipple said he estimates that the soonest the space telescope could be fully operational would be late this week.

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