CU Boulder to begin testing instrument for 2025 NASA mission

The University of Colorado Boulder will soon begin testing an instrument that will fly on a NASA mission in 2025 to collect data on interstellar dust particles.

The instrument is called IDEX, or interstellar dust experiment. IDEX will be the first dedicated instrument to measure interstellar dust near Earth. It’s one of 10 instruments that will fly in a NASA mission called the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe.

Scott Tucker, project manager for the IDEX instrument, said the general goal of the IMAP mission is to explore “our solar neighborhood.” The role of IDEX is to collect data of interstellar dust particles, which can help scientists learn more about the solar system.

Mihály Horányi, CU Boulder physics professor and IDEX instrument lead, said dust “is a new window to the universe” and carries an incredible amount of information.

“We are slowly learning what (dust particles) can tell us about the star of their origin, the environment they lived in, what are the regions where planets can form and life can emerge,” Horányi said.

The concept of using interstellar dust to learn about the solar system is relatively new, Horányi said, and the fact that it is detectable in the solar system was discovered in 1992.

IMAP is a mission to study the sun’s heliosphere and will launch to a point just over 1% of the distance between the Earth and the sun more than 900,000 miles away.

The spacecraft will then send the data it collects back down to earth periodically, and the mission is expected to last two years.

IDEX was built by researchers and students at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at CU Boulder. Now, the instrument has been moved to IMPACT, a particle accelerator laboratory within LASP, for testing.

The test is meant to calibrate the instrument and make sure all expected results are there, John Fontanese, a researcher at LASP and IMPACT, said.

The IDEX instrument works through impact ionization. The particle hits the target at high speed and partially vaporizes turning electrons into ions. The ions can then be used to analyze the composition.

The accelerator tests the ability of the instrument to accurately identify particles by controlling the type of particle it shoots at the IDEX instrument and the speed of that particle.

“So when we shoot a dust particle on IDEX, we can say exactly what material, velocity, and mass it is,” Fontanese said. “Then IDEX can report what parameters of the impactor they recorded, including elemental composition, and we can compare those values.”

CU Boulder has one of only three rare megavolt hypervelocity dust accelerators in the world, Fontanese said, which allows the university to build and test such an instrument.

“This facility is also incredibly important for lunar exploration,” Fontanese said. “As we know, NASA is going back to the moon and dust is always a problem. The experimental physics capabilities of our facility, IMPACT and LASP, will further the safety and knowledge that we gain when we go back to the moon in the next five years.”

Horányi said the IDEX project and the university’s relationship with NASA provides a unique opportunity for students.

“There are not too many universities in the U.S or in the world where students get flight instrument involvement, where they are building something that will go to space,” Horányi said.

For example, Tucker said there are a couple graduate students responsible for analyzing the test data, and when the mission flies, they’ll be using the data to write their dissertations.

LASP also hired students from engineering and mechanical engineering to help build the instrument. Horányi said the students are highly integrated with the professionals on the team and he sees them as colleagues.

David McComas, IMAP Principal Investigator and Princeton professor, leads the mission with Princeton University. The John Hopkins University Applied Space Laboratory is building the spacecraft, which is planned to launch February 2025.

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