How did IBEX get into space?
A view of Kwagalein Atoll from above. The airstrip that the IBEX mission launched from is visible covering much of the island area. Credit: Dirk HR Spennemann, Digital Micronesia.
IBEX began its ride to space in 2008, when it launched from Kwajalein Island, Marshall Islands. An airplane called an L-1011 took a Pegasus rocket to high altitude. Then, the Pegasus rocket fired its own rockets to propel it, and the IBEX spacecraft, into space. The IBEX satellite climbed into an orbitThe curved path, usually elliptical, described by a planet, satellite, spaceship, etc., around a celestial body, such as the Sun. that goes 5/6 of the way to the Moon. This orbit is very high, which allows the satellite to spend much of the time out of the Earth's magnetosphereThe region around a planet where particles from the solar wind are trapped by the planet's magnetic field., which can interfere with its observations. Even though this orbit is high, it is still very far from the Solar System boundary that it is measuring.
As part of a nationwide contest held just prior to launch in 2008, IBEX's own Pegasus rocket received a special name: Mercator (pronounced mer-KAY-tur). The name Mercator was chosen in honor of Gerardus Mercator, the famous 16th century Dutch mapmaker. In addition to the many maps that he made, he also invented a way to create terrestrial (Earth) and celestial (sky) globes out of paper mache, allowing for quicker production of larger numbers of globes than the wooden or brass globes that were previously carved by hand. Because the data from the IBEX spacecraft is used to make the first maps of our Solar System boundary ever produced, the IBEX team thought Mercator was a perfect choice!
CLICK TO PLAY MOVIE. The L-1011 aircraft is seen from the distance above the clouds. In a close-up on the aircraft, the Pegasus rocket is mated to the underbelly of the plane. The Pegasus rocket separates from the airplane, dropping away from the craft through the atmosphere. After several seconds the rocket fires propelling the rocket into a high altitude orbit. A smoky tail is left trailing behind the rocket’s path. Clip from IBEX: Search for the Edge of the Solar System. Credit: NASA/Adler Planetarium.