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NASA probe to explore fringes of solar system

NASA's IBEX probe set off from the Marshall Islands Sunday on a two-year voyage to explore the confines of the solar system, in the first such mission since the 1977 launch of Voyage 1 and 2, both of which are still in service today.

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NASA on Sunday launched a probe into space on a two-year mission to study the distant edge of the solar system.

The Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) was launched at 1745 GMT, according to images broadcast live by the US space agency.

The 462-kilogram (1,016-pound) probe was powered by a Pegasus rocket which dropped from the bay doors of a Lockheed L-1011 jet flying at 12,000 meters (40,000 feet) over the southern Pacific Ocean near the Marshall Islands.

"The count went really smooth... and everything appears to be going well," NASA assistant launch manager Omar Baez said shortly after the launch.

The IBEX is equipped with instruments that will allow it to take images and for the first time chart a remote region known as the interstellar boundary, where the solar system meets interstellar space. The area is a vast expanse of turbulent gas and twisting magnetic fields.

"The interstellar boundary regions are critical because they shield us from the vast majority of dangerous galactic cosmic rays, which otherwise would penetrate into Earth's orbit and make human spaceflight much more dangerous," David McComas, IBEX principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas, said recently.

The only information that scientists have of this distant region are from the twin Voyager 1 and 2 probes, launched in 1977 and still in service today.

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