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Southwest Research Institute anticipating the March 25 launch of San Antonio's first spacecraft

San Antonio -- March 17, 2000 -- The greatly anticipated launch of the $82 million Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) spacecraft is set for March 25 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Officials at Southwest Research Institute® (SwRI®) received the green light after a series of additional readiness reviews were completed. These reviews, prompted by the loss of the Mars Polar Lander late last year, were mandated for all NASA missions scheduled for launch in 2000.

The IMAGE spacecraft will allow scientists to study the region of space controlled by the Earth's magnetic field and containing ionized gases (plasmas), called the magnetosphere, in a way that's never before been possible. The stream of charged particles flowing out from the sun, called the solar wind, interacts heavily with the magnetosphere and can harm or even shut down orbiting satellites -- an ever-increasing risk considering the nation's growing dependence on satellite-based technologies. These solar interactions also put power networks on Earth at risk, such as in 1989 when a severe solar storm knocked out electricity in the northeastern U.S. and in Canada.

During its two-year mission, the half-ton spacecraft will carry some of the most sophisticated imaging instruments ever flown in near-Earth orbit to provide space weather images that can help NASA, the Department of Defense, and the communications and power industries better understand and prepare for such damaging solar storms.

"Before now, scientists have only been able to see individual points of the magnetosphere," says Dr. James L. Burch, IMAGE principal investigator and SwRI vice president. "Those points would then have to be combined for a more complete picture - an often difficult and inaccurate process. The six science instruments aboard IMAGE will enable researchers to accurately see the 'big picture' for the first time."

The spacecraft will use energetic neutral atom imaging, ultraviolet imaging, and radio plasma imaging to examine the magnetosphere's principal plasma regions and boundaries. In addition to taking the science lead, SwRI was assigned overall responsibility for the spacecraft and has led integration and testing of the complete payload. Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space developed the spacecraft bus under contract from the Institute.

The IMAGE launch coincides with "solar maximum," a period of intense solar activity occurring every 11 years. During this time, large solar eruptions cause the magnetosphere to be much more highly disturbed than usual. Normal geomagnetic storms can produce the ghostly, beautiful aurora seen in Canada and the Pacific Northwest, but during solar maximum these auroras can sometimes be seen as far south as Texas, as happened in March 1989.

"Even though the timing of the spacecraft was coincidental," says Burch, "we'll be fortunate to have data returns during this particularly active period."

IMAGE was selected in 1996 as NASA's first Medium-class Explorer (MIDEX) mission under the Explorers Program, which strives to accomplish high-quality investigations while reducing expenses through innovative streamlined management approaches, design control, and use of new technology.

For more information about the IMAGE mission, contact Maria Stothoff, Communications Department, Southwest Research Institute, P.O. Drawer 28510, San Antonio, Texas 78228-0510, Phone (210) 522-3305, Fax (210) 522- 3547.

Editors: Unexpected delays have pushed the launch of the spacecraft further back than originally planned. Additional delays are possible, but not expected. Check the IMAGE website at pluto.space.swri.edu/IMAGE/ for the latest status reports. IMAGE mission to study the Earth's global response to variations in the solar wind.

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