UNH Space Scientists Awarded
$5 Million From NASA To Study Edge Of Solar System
Contact: David Sims
Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space
Feb. 3, 2005
DURHAM, N.H. -- Scientists Eberhard Möbius and Marty Lee of
the University of New Hampshire’s Space Science Center have
been selected by NASA to help build instruments for a mission characterized
as the “first step beyond the solar system and into the galactic
As part of NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX,
mission, Möbius, Lee and a team of engineers, scientists and
students at UNH will construct critical components of the special
cameras on board the IBEX spacecraft.
The two, ultra-high sensitivity cameras will produce images of the
region in space where the solar wind interacts with the interstellar
medium by capturing atoms that fly on a straight path toward Earth.
Because they turn incoming atoms into an image, the cameras could
be compared to the special visors worn by the blind Geordi in Star
Trek: The Next Generation. UNH will contribute the optics for both
cameras and the “time-of-flight” sensor system, which
determines the mass of captured atoms, for one of the cameras.
IBEX is a new mission in NASA’s Small Explorer Program, which
provides frequent flight opportunities for highly focused and relatively
inexpensive space science missions. The mission is being led by
Dave McComas of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio,
Tx., and has a total price tag of $134 million.
The region in space IBEX will probe marks the boundary between Earth’s
solar system and the rest of Earth’s galaxy. Fifty years of
space exploration has provided a good understanding of near-Earth
space, and instruments such as the Hubble Space Telescope have provided
beautiful glimpses into deep space. But the region where Earth’s
solar system mingles with the medium that fills Earth’s galaxy
– the “space” between the stars – has not
been well investigated. And this, according to Möbius, is largely
because of a lack of instrumentation to do the job.
“This mission really tackles a new measurement that we could
not do before,” says Möbius who, like Lee, is a professor
of space plasma physics at the UNH Institute for the Study or Earth,
Oceans, and Space (EOS) and the Department of Physics. Although
UNH has built similar components for other space missions, this
next generation of high-sensitivity cameras will keep the IBEX team
on their toes improving the technology in a very short timeframe.
“We are using a known technique but we are pushing it to its
limits,” Möbius says. For example, to build the optical
component – called a collimator, which will “focus”
the incoming particles – the UNH team will need to do significant
design and development work as well as very advanced engineering.
“Because we only want to get neutral particles, we will have
to repel all charged particles, which means we will have to put
the collimator on very high voltage,” he says. And, with respect
to the design and engineering, he says, “this is a whole different
kettle of fish we have to deal with here.”
To get the distance of the region imaged by IBEX, the mission will
involve the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which was launched in 1977 and
is heading out of Earth’s solar system. When Voyager 1 punches
through the region separating Earthh’s solar system from interstellar
space, the cameras on board IBEX should be able to pinpoint the
exact point of exit.
“We are very proud of the IBEX team. And this is very much
a team effort, with our partners Southwest Research Institute, our
team captain, Lockheed Martin, the Los Almos National Laboratory,
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the Applied Physics Laboratory,
Orbital Sciences, and the University of Bern. We are also very excited
to involve our students, both undergraduate and graduate, in this
cutting-edge science,” says Berrien Moore III, director of
In addition to UNH’s work, the Christa McAullife Planetarium
in collaboration with the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, will participate
in the IBEX education and public outreach effort through the creation
of a planetarium show.