Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

UNH space scientists help catch the interstellar wind

19.10.2009
On Thursday, October 15, scientists and engineers from the University of New Hampshire's Space Science Center will celebrate the announcement of the first major results from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) mission, which will be published online Thursday in the journal Science in conjunction with a 2 p.m. press conference held at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The mission launched October 19, 2008 and carries two, ultra-high sensitivity, cameras containing important components designed and built at UNH. From a highly elliptical Earth orbit the IBEX satellite is exploring the outer solar system using unique energetic neutral atom imaging (instead of photons of light) to create maps of the boundary between our solar system and the rest of our galaxy.

The mission's first global, high- and low-energy maps show the interactions between the million-mile-per-hour solar wind and the low-density material between the stars, known as the interstellar medium, which blows through the solar system as a gentler 60,000-mile-per-hour interstellar wind due to the Sun's motion through our galactic neighborhood.

The maps provide a "big-picture" view of the region in space where the solar wind collides with interstellar gas to form the termination shock – the boundary of the huge, magnetic bubble that surrounds the Sun known as the heliosphere. The heliosphere is the Earth's first layer of protection from high-energy cosmic rays. The high-energy maps, which contain a bright "ribbon" snaking across the sky that nobody had expected, provide modelers with new real-world constraints needed to better understand how magnetic fields in the surrounding interstellar medium shape our heliosphere.

According to mission co-investigator Eberhard Möbius of the UNH Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space and the Department of Physics, the capability to use neutral atoms to create an image has also allowed scientists to "catch and analyze the interstellar wind at Earth's doorstep."

Says Möbius, "What we have managed to do for the first time is catch the interstellar wind for three species of energetic neutral atoms – helium, hydrogen, and oxygen." This image shows up as the brightest feature in the low-energy maps.

Like water flowing around a rock in a river, the electrically charged "plasma" component of the interstellar medium is forced around the heliosphere due to electrical and magnetic forces (a fraction of all interstellar atoms have lost electrons, the resulting mix of positive ions and negative electrons forms a plasma). While passing through this region, neutral hydrogen and oxygen atoms are partially dragged along by the plasma whereas neutral helium passes straight through. By comparing the arrival directions of these three different species at the IBEX spacecraft, scientists extract the subtle deflection at the boundary of the heliosphere and, thus, learn about the forces that shape it.

"We're just now getting a handle on the interaction of the surrounding interstellar medium with the heliosphere and that's providing us with the big picture," Möbius says. More broadly, the IBEX data will help scientists understand the underlying physics operating in this same boundary region – the astrosphere – of other stars.

"The new and unexpected findings by IBEX will revolutionize our understanding of the heliosphere", says IBEX principal investigator Dave McComas, of the Southwest Research Institute.

Scientists and engineers at the UNH Space Science Center designed and built a major portion of IBEX's sensor payload – the "time-of-flight" mass spectrometer that can identify specific species of energetic neutral atoms, the iris or "collimator" of the specialized cameras, and the star sensor that tells with very high accuracy from which direction the interstellar gas is coming. Two undergraduate students, Morgan O'Neill and George Clark, conducted independent research calibrating the star sensor over their four years at UNH – work that helped launch them both into Ph.D. programs upon graduation.

IBEX is the latest in NASA's series of low-cost, rapidly developed Small Explorers space missions. Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, TX, leads and developed the mission with a team of national and international partners. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the Explorers Program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Funding for UNH's role in the IBEX mission was received from NASA under a subcontract with SwRI.

The University of New Hampshire, founded in 1866, is a world-class public research university with the feel of a New England liberal arts college. A land, sea, and space-grant university, UNH is the state's flagship public institution, enrolling 11,800 undergraduate and 2,400 graduate students.

Image available to download: http://www.eos.unh.edu/newsimage/ibex_sci_lg.jpg.

Photo caption: Arrival of interstellar hydrogen, helium, and oxygen atoms as seen in the IBEX-Lo sky maps. The Sun's gravitation deflects the interstellar wind away from its original arrival direction, i.e. coming from the nose of the heliosphere. (Image by the University of New Hampshire and Boston University)

David Sims | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.unh.edu

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Pulses of electrons manipulate nanomagnets and store information
21.07.2017 | American Institute of Physics

nachricht Vortex photons from electrons in circular motion
21.07.2017 | National Institutes of Natural Sciences

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Manipulating Electron Spins Without Loss of Information

Physicists have developed a new technique that uses electrical voltages to control the electron spin on a chip. The newly-developed method provides protection from spin decay, meaning that the contained information can be maintained and transmitted over comparatively large distances, as has been demonstrated by a team from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics and the Swiss Nanoscience Institute. The results have been published in Physical Review X.

For several years, researchers have been trying to use the spin of an electron to store and transmit information. The spin of each electron is always coupled...

Im Focus: The proton precisely weighted

What is the mass of a proton? Scientists from Germany and Japan successfully did an important step towards the most exact knowledge of this fundamental constant. By means of precision measurements on a single proton, they could improve the precision by a factor of three and also correct the existing value.

To determine the mass of a single proton still more accurate – a group of physicists led by Klaus Blaum and Sven Sturm of the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear...

Im Focus: On the way to a biological alternative

A bacterial enzyme enables reactions that open up alternatives to key industrial chemical processes

The research team of Prof. Dr. Oliver Einsle at the University of Freiburg's Institute of Biochemistry has long been exploring the functioning of nitrogenase....

Im Focus: The 1 trillion tonne iceberg

Larsen C Ice Shelf rift finally breaks through

A one trillion tonne iceberg - one of the biggest ever recorded -- has calved away from the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica, after a rift in the ice,...

Im Focus: Laser-cooled ions contribute to better understanding of friction

Physics supports biology: Researchers from PTB have developed a model system to investigate friction phenomena with atomic precision

Friction: what you want from car brakes, otherwise rather a nuisance. In any case, it is useful to know as precisely as possible how friction phenomena arise –...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Closing the Sustainability Circle: Protection of Food with Biobased Materials

21.07.2017 | Event News

»We are bringing Additive Manufacturing to SMEs«

19.07.2017 | Event News

The technology with a feel for feelings

12.07.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

NASA looks to solar eclipse to help understand Earth's energy system

21.07.2017 | Earth Sciences

Stanford researchers develop a new type of soft, growing robot

21.07.2017 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Vortex photons from electrons in circular motion

21.07.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>