NASA's IBEX spacecraft not responding to commands after computer glitch during 15-year mission to study interstellar border

Artist's conception of the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) spacecraft next to Earth on the right and the boundary of the heliosphere on the right (represented by a bubble of gas).
Artist's conception of the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) spacecraft next to Earth on the right and the boundary of the heliosphere on the right (represented by a bubble of gas). (Image credit: NASA)

A NASA spacecraft exploring a key deep-space zone is in contingency.

NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) experienced a flight computer reset Feb. 18, agency officials said in an update Friday (Feb. 24). The spacecraft launched in October 2008 to examine the outer edge of the heliosphere, or the "bubble" that represents the boundary between the sun's environment and interstellar space.

Flight controllers have been unsuccessful in "regaining command capability" despite resetting hardware and software on the ground, the agency said in the statement. "Flight software still is running, and the spacecraft systems appear to be functional," the statement added, but noted commands are not processing aboard IBEX.

Related: Mysterious energy ribbon at solar system's edge a 'cosmic roadmap' 

IBEX is already programmed to reset itself and restart its power on March 4, NASA officials noted, which will provide a backup if the mission team is unable to solve the problem. "NASA will provide additional information on IBEX following the reset unless the agency is able to find a solution before," agency officials said.

IBEX was launched nearly 15 years ago to "discover the global interaction between plasma from the solar wind and the interstellar medium at the boundary region of the solar system," according to the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, which formerly led the mission (it is now led by Princeton University.)

The spacecraft made its first map of the heliosphere in the first year after its launch, in 2009, and continues to map the entire sky every six months. It is most famous for discovering a dense region of particles, nicknamed the "IBEX ribbon."

The ribbon occurs as neutral hydrogen atoms carried in the solar wind (or constant stream of particles from our sun) interact with the magnetic field of the Milky Way. The ions' interactions with the magnetic field creates vibrations or waves in the field and the ions are constrained in ribbon-like shapes. Scientists are studying this phenomenon to learn more about the heliosphere.

Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: