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, Calif.

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

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.

EDITORS: Additional press information, including brief IMAGE facts,
media services for the launch, and information about SwRI, is
available on the SwRI Web site at

Please note also that unexpected delays have pushed the launch of the
spacecraft further back than originally planned. Additional delays are
possible, but not expected. Check the IMAGE Web site at for the latest status reports.

Contact: Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio Maria Martinez, 210/522-3305