Headlines > News > IBEX Spacecraft Finds Discoveries Close to Home

IBEX Spacecraft Finds Discoveries Close to Home

Published by Matt on Tue Aug 17, 2010 9:14 am via: NASA
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Imagine floating 35,000 miles above the sunny side of Earth. Our home planet gleams below, a majestic whorl of color and texture. All seems calm around you. With no satellites or space debris to dodge, you can just relax and enjoy the black emptiness of space.

BEX found that Energetic Neutral Atoms, or ENAs, are coming from a region just outside Earth's magnetopause where nearly stationary protons from the solar wind interact with the tenuous cloud of hydrogen atoms in Earth's exosphere. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

BEX found that Energetic Neutral Atoms, or ENAs, are coming from a region just outside Earth's magnetopause where nearly stationary protons from the solar wind interact with the tenuous cloud of hydrogen atoms in Earth's exosphere. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

But looks can be deceiving.

In reality, you’ve unknowingly jumped into an invisible mosh pit of electromagnetic mayhem — the place in space where a supersonic “wind” of charged particles from the Sun crashes head-on into the protective magnetic bubble that surrounds our planet. Traveling at a million miles per hour, the solar wind’s protons and electrons sense Earth’s magnetosphere too late to flow smoothly around it. Instead, they’re shocked, heated, and slowed almost to a stop as they pile up along its outer boundary, the magnetopause, before getting diverted sideways.

Space physicists have had a general sense of these dynamic goings-on for decades. But it wasn’t until the advent of the Interstellar Boundary Explorer or IBEX, a NASA spacecraft launched in October 2008, that they’ve been able to see what the human eye cannot: the first-ever images of this electromagnetic crash scene. They can now witness how some of the solar wind’s charged particles are being neutralized by gas escaping from Earth’s atmosphere.

A New Way to See Atoms

IBEX wasn’t designed to keep tabs on Earth’s magnetosphere. Instead, its job is to map interactions occurring far beyond the planets, 8 to 10 billion miles away, where the Sun’s own magnetic bubble, the heliosphere, meets interstellar space.

Only two spacecraft, Voyagers 1 and 2, have ventured far enough to probe this region directly. IBEX, which travels in a looping, 8-day-long orbit around Earth, stays much closer to home, but it carries a pair of detectors that can observe the interaction region from afar.

Here’s how: When fast-moving protons in the solar wind reach the edge of the heliosphere, they sometimes grab electrons from the slower-moving interstellar atoms around them, like batons getting passed between relay runners. This charge exchange creates electrically neutral hydrogen atoms that are no longer controlled by magnetic fields. Suddenly, they’re free to go wherever they want — and because they’re still moving fast, they quickly zip away from the interstellar boundary in all directions.

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