IBEX Will Spread its Wings Today

Probably one of the coolest missions designed to study the termination shock (the region of space where the solar wind and interstellar medium interact) located a little under 100 AU from the Sun, will be launched today (Sunday). The Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) will be carried into space on board a Pegasus rocket installed under a L-1011 carrier aircraft from the Reagan Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific (about 2500 miles from Hawaii in the direction of Australia). Out of interest, the aircraft will take off from the same region that SpaceX use to send their Falcon 1 rocket (and first ever commercial orbital vehicle) into space…

IBEX inside the Pegasus launch vehicle before transport from Vandenberg Air Force Base on October 11th (NASA)

The termination shock is a mysterious region of space as yet to be explored. Although Voyager 1 and 2 passed through this point, it is of critical importance to astrophysicists to measure the temporal and spatial changes at the boundary between the Solar System and the rest of interstellar space, as my previous Universe Today article explains:

In 2004, Voyager 1 hit it and in 2006, Voyager 2 hit it. The first probe flew through the termination shock at around 94 AU (8 billion miles away); the second measured it at only 76 AU (7 billion miles). This result alone suggests that the termination shock may be irregularly shaped and/or variable depending on solar activity. Before the Voyager missions, the termination shock was theorized, but there was little observational evidence until the two veteran probes traversed the region. The termination shock is of paramount importance to understanding the nature of the outer reaches of the solar system as, counter-intuitively, the Sun’s activity increases, the region beyond the termination shock (the heliosheath) becomes more efficient at blocking deadly cosmic rays. During solar minimum, it becomes less efficient at blocking cosmic rays. – Excerpt from IBEX Mission Will View the Final Frontier of the Solar System

So how will IBEX aid astrophysicists? It will count energetic neutral atoms (or ENAs for short) originating from the turbulent interaction region of the termination shock and build up a distribution of where the ENAs come from.

The Pegasus launch system in action (Univ. of Colarado/NASA)
The Pegasus launch system in action (Univ. of Colarado/NASA)

Scientists have known for a long time that neutral atoms appear to be generated at the termination shock. The solar wind carries energetic charged particles (or ions, mainly protons) into the far reaches of the heliosphere which eventually encounter interstellar neutral atoms. It is important to keep in mind at this point that any interstellar ions trying to get into the heliosphere are swept aside as the Solar System carries on its merry way through the galaxy; the heliospheric magnetic field deflects them. Therefore, only neutral interstellar particles are allowed in.

As the solar wind protons interact with the interstellar medium at the termination shock, they collide with the interstellar neutral atoms. When this happens, a mechanism known as charge exchange occurs. Electrons are ripped from these neutral interstellar atoms, creating very energetic neutral hydrogen atoms (i.e. 1Γ— solar wind proton + 1Γ— interstellar neutral atom electron). These ENAs are then blasted away from the point of charge exchange in a straight line (as energetic neutral atoms are not deflected by magnetic fields).

IBEX will be ideally placed to detect these ENAs whilst it orbits Earth so a better idea about termination shock dynamics can be gained. So, IBEX is set for launch on Sunday at 1:48 pm EDT during an eight minute launch window on board an aircraft-launched Pegasus rocket. I can’t wait for the results it will return, IBEX will, quite literally, paint a picture of how our Solar System interacts with the interstellar medium…

For more information on IBEX:

Original source: NASA

Universal Death and Impossible Physics… In the Same Box!

The box from Amazon.com cannot contain the awesomeness inside...
The box from Amazon.com cannot contain the awesomeness inside...

Today marks a significant day in the history of my bookshelf.

Having moved to the US from the UK, leaving the bulk of my proto-library collection back in my Bristol hometown, I only transported my most prized science and university textbooks. Alas, I had to leave my treasured collection of Patrick Moore books, my guide to the Universe and several hefty quantum physics texts in storage, bringing the bare minimum across the pond.

Books are important to me, and I have big dreams about having a room filled with them; one of those in-house libraries filled with knowledge and history. But five books hardly constitute a library… heck, they barely fill a rucksack. So action needed to be taken… I needed to turn this proto-bookshelf into a source of reference!

I have a bookshelf. Check.
I have an office. Check.
I have an Amazon.com account. Check.
I have a credit card (it’s strained, but you can’t put a price on knowledge, right?). Check!

So I went shopping and brought Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible (of which I have been promising myself most of the year) and succumbed to Phil Plait’s Death from the Skies! (with a book title like that, you have to obey the calling). Can’t wait to put a crease down the spines of both books, but I am keen to read Dr Plait’s account of how dangerous the Universe can be. Having done battle with the 2012 doomsayers, I need to read a book with a good, scientific rundown of how the world might end – and not fighting against the pseudo-scientific claims about Planet X and those pesky Anunnaki. The world is going to end some time, so look at the facts behind the claims and find out yourself.

The praise from Mythbuster Adam Savage for Death from the Skies pretty much sums it all up, I can’t wait to review the book myself:

Phil Plait has done it again. He brings his unique and funny voice of reason and sanity to bear on making sense of a deadly universe. If things worked the way I wanted them to, any reporter about to do another “sensational” story on deadly meteors would consult this volume and BANG! Common sense would find it’s way into the news. How strange would THAT world be? On his blog and in his books, Plait is an important source of sanity and critical thinking, with just the right sense of wonder, reminding us that the universe is an amazing enough place without having to make crap up about it.” – Adam Savage, from Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters.

For more on his big box of death, check out Phil’s Bad Astronomy blog

Small Asteroid 2008 TC3 Will Hit Earth Tonight

Artist impression of a meteorite entering the Earth's atmosphere (©Leonard Wikberg III)
Artist impression of a meteorite entering the Earth's atmosphere (©Leonard Wikberg III)

A newly discovered asteroid called 2008 TC3 will (with a 99.8-100% probability) hit the atmosphere over northern Sudan at 2:46 UTC (Oct 7th). The piece of rock will not threaten people or structures on the surface, it is likely to burn up during re-entry as a magnificent “air burst.” Estimates suggest that as 2008 TC3 burns up, it will detonate with an energy of a kiloton of TNT.

2008 TC3 is between 1-5 meters in diameter, so it’s not a threat by any means, but it should create a spectacular display. Usually the bright meteors we observe are generated by debris no bigger than a grain of sand, so this will be a huge astronomical event in comparison. The giant meteor will be visible from eastern Africa travelling very quickly from north-east to south-west and it is expected to create a very long trail as it will enter the atmosphere at a very shallow angle.
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Particle Zoo: The Higgs Boson For Sale

Collect them all! The Standard Model of plushie particles (© Particle Zoo & Julie Peasley)
Collect them all! The Standard Model of plushie particles (© Particle Zoo & Julie Peasley)

Astroengine exclusive interview with Particle Zoo founder, Julie Peasley

The hunt for the Higgs particle may have come to grinding halt until 2009, but that doesn’t mean you can’t discover the elusive particle for yourself. In fact, it’s not just the Higgs boson that awaits discovery in the zoo of Standard Model particles. And what a zoo it is! We have protons, neutrons, the quarks that make up said hadrons; plus all the force carriers, neutrinos, photons, electrons and anti-particles. There is a delicious and varied array of subatomic particles out there, but they are too small for us to see. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what these quanta actually look like?

It seems that Particle Zookeeper Julie Peasley has an intimate connection with the tiny “beings” that make up all known matter in the Universe. She has single-handedly set up her own business putting faces to the complex particles, giving us a unique view into the quantum world we would otherwise forget in the soup of theoretical physics equations. The Particle Zoo is a Los Angeles company, where Julie brings particles to life in her “sweatshop of one,” sewing beautifully-made plushie toys of all the Standard Model particles so we can collect them all…
Continue reading “Particle Zoo: The Higgs Boson For Sale”

Last Look at GOCE Before Being Sealed Inside Rockot

The last look at GOCE before it is packed away inside the rocket two half-shells (ESA)
The last look at GOCE before it is packed away inside the rocket two half-shells (ESA)

As you probably know, I am a huge fan of the Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) as it is the sleekest, most aesthetically pleasing spacecraft I have ever seen. Rather than looking like a generic satellite, GOCE has been constructed in the shape of an aerodynamic spaceship as its orbit is so low that atmospheric drag will be a factor. Adding to the wow! factor is the GOCE ion engine giving a small but steady thrust to make sure GOCE doesn’t lose altitude during its Sun-synchronous orbit. Combine all these factors with the incredibly advanced science it will be carrying out during its 20 month lifetime, this is about as advanced as a terrestrial satellite can get.

So, ahead of its launch on September 10th, GOCE has been packed safely inside the Breeze-KM Upper Stage at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia. Next time the craft sees light will be three-minutes after launch in six days time…
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CryoSat-2, a Satellite that Looks Like a Shed, Doing Science in the Freezer

Cryosat-2. Resembles something Da Vinci would design (ESA)
Cryosat-2. Resembles something Da Vinci would have designed (ESA)

ESA Cryosat-2 is set for launch in 2009 and it is the second attempt at getting the technology into orbit. Back in 2005, the original CryoSat was lost after a rocket malfunction caused it to fall short of the desired orbit, but much like the Phoenix Mars Lander story (i.e. it rose from the ashes of the lost Mars Polar Lander mission, recycled spare parts and reassembled the robot), Cryosat will fly once more. So what makes this mission so important? Well, it will carry out an essential three-year survey, measuring the thickness of global ice sheets.

But why am I really mentioning it? Like many ESA missions, the designs of their satellites and robots are so cool, and Cryosat-2 is no different. From some angles it looks like a sturdy intergalactic battleship, from others it looks like it was painstakingly designed by Da Vinci. Sometimes it even looks like a flying shed. In my books, that’s one interesting satellite. The science isn’t bad either…
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An Intimate View From the Space Shuttle Garage

"So what do you do?" "Oh, I have the boring job attaching rocket engines to the Shuttle..." (NASA/Kim Shiflett)
"So what do you do?" "Oh, I'm just the Shuttle rocket engine crane operator..." (NASA/Kim Shiflett)

If you thought that Shuttle launches were easy, think again. Preparing each Shuttle launch is a laborious task, taking several months and thousands of NASA employees. Pictured above is one of Atlantis’ Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) being installed back on June 11th at Kennedy Space Center’s Orbiter Processing Facility bay 1, and I think this image epitomizes what space flight is all about. Rocket science is complex, we know that, but when I see just how big these things are, I gain a better respect for how far we have come. Best thing is, this is an image of a 23 year old space vehicle, just imagine what the future Ares V will look like…
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GOCE Will be the Coolest Satellite to Orbit Earth, Ever

Solar panels have never looked so good. GOCE is the Porsche of orbital engineering (GOCE/ESA)
Solar panels have never looked so good. GOCE is the Porsche of orbital engineering (GOCE/ESA)

The European Space Agency is set to launch the Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) Star Destroyer satellite on September 10th. This advanced mission will be the most sophisticated piece of kit ever to orbit the Earth, investigating the Earth’s gravitational field. It will perform a highly accurate mapping campaign, producing a high resolution reference shape of the geoid (i.e. the shape of our planet). The mission will be unprecedented, but that’s not the reason why I’m drawing attention to it…

Only last week I remarked on the coolness of the 2013 Mars rover mission in the shape of the dazzling Pasteur Rover (set to drill two-metres into Mars), and today with the announcement of the launch GOCE, it looks like ESA has done it again. They’ve encased their state-of-the-art instrumentation inside something that belongs in a science fiction movie, more reminiscent of the Imperial Star Destroyer from Star Wars than a tin box satellite…
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ExoMars Rover Will be the Coolest Martian on Six Wheels

The ESA Pasteur Rover, the Mercedes Benz of Martian roving (ESA)

Preparations for the European ExoMars mission appear to be in full swing for a 2013 launch to the Red Planet. This will be a huge mission for ESA as they have yet to control a robot on another planet. Yes, us Europeans had control of the Huygens probe that drifted through the atmosphere of Titan (and had a few minutes to feel what it was like to sit on another planet before Huygens slipped into robot heaven), but it’s been NASA who has made all the strides in robotic roving technology. Although Russia gave the rover thing a blast back in 1971, the roads have been clear for the 1998 Mars Pathfinder Sojourner rover and the current NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers. Spirit and Opportunity are still exploring the planet (regardless of the limping and stiff robotic arms), several years after their warranty expired. But the Exploration Rovers won’t be the most hi-tech robotic buggies to rove the Martian regolith for much longer.

Enter the ESA Pasteur Rover, possibly the meanest looking rover you will ever see, with the intent of probing Mars to its core…
Continue reading “ExoMars Rover Will be the Coolest Martian on Six Wheels”