The IBEX launch, which we previewed here at Gizmodo last Monday, went off without a hitch today. The ottoman-sized probe was strapped to a rocket that was strapped to the belly of an aeroplane, which carried it to 40,000 feet. From there, the rocket fired up and took IBEX to an orbit about 320,000km up. Fun! But it gets worse. Much worse. I hope everyone has their lead-lined fallout suits at the ready, because things could get a bit freaky in a few decades.
Now, just to summarise, before we get to the depressing part, the IBEX (Interstellar Boundary Explorer) was conceived to study the farthest reaches of our solar system. At the very edge is the termination shock, where the system ends, and deep space begins. Studying the unknown will always be cool, but it turns out the IBEX mission could also lead to a better understanding of our future doom.
The termination shock is also the point at which the sun's solar wind begins to taper off, and eventually end. Much like our atmosphere here on Earth, the solar wind protects the solar system from the deadly radiation that saturates deep space. It does this by hurling ions in every direction, at 1 million miles per hour, all the time. Scientists believe the solar wind stops about 90% of the radiation from reaching the planets housed within the termination shock.
The trouble is these winds have fallen to their weakest levels in 50 years. In the past 10 years, the wind's intensity weakened by about 25%. Why? Who knows. Hence, IBEX.
Said David McComas, IBEX chief scientist, "We don't believe we're in imminent danger, but we've only measured the solar wind for about 50 years." Reassuring, thy name be NASA. [Bloomberg]