Imaging Particles at the Solar System’s Edge

Advancing designs built to study particles around Earth and Saturn, IMAP-Ultra will image energetic particles at the edge of the solar system, providing detailed visuals of what happens when the Sun’s solar wind meets interstellar space.

About the Instrument

Instrument Type
Particle

While the Sun can produce fierce storms and radiation, it also continually produces a solar wind of charged particles and magnetic field that blows out against the interstellar medium, providing a protective sheath around the solar system called the heliosphere. NASA’s IMAP mission aims to advance our understanding of the heliosphere and its interactions with interstellar space. Critical to that objective will be an APL-built instrument called Ultra.

ULTRA Instrument
A detailed, 3D rendering of the IMAP Ultra instrument.

Nearly identical to the JENI instrument APL is building for the European Space Agency’s JUICE mission to Jupiter and Ganymede, Ultra will capture images of energetic neutral atoms (particularly hydrogen atoms) produced just outside the solar system in the heliosheath, the region where the Sun’s solar wind slows as it rams into the interstellar medium particles and magnetic field. Roughly every three months, Ultra will produce detailed images that cover more than 50% of the heliosphere, providing new understanding about how energetic particles and pressures at the edge of the solar system and beyond vary over time and form our own heliospheric bubble.

With the ability of the IMAP mission to observe the sky and collect neutral atom data for longer periods than previous missions that imaged the outer heliosphere, as well as IMAP-Ultra’s unprecedented ability to remove background noise and clearly separate objects from a distance, IMAP will enable scientists to resolve heliospheric structures that previously could not be visualized clearly.
(Left) A map of the edge of the heliosphere, showing energetic neutral atoms (ENAs) detected by the INCA instrument on NASA's Cassini spacecraft (left of black line) versus a simulation of what IMAP-Ultra will see at the same region (right of black line). Warm colors indicate more signals from ENAs. Because IMAP will observe the sky and collect ENA data for longer periods than previous missions, and because IMAP-Ultra will have an unprecedented ability to remove background noise and clearly separate objects from a distance, the IMAP mission will resolve heliospheric structures that previously could not be visualized clearly, as shown. (Right) A map of the heliospheric edge, showing IMAP-Ultra's increased ability to collect ENA data. Lighter colors indicate higher collecting power. 

Mission