Simulating trajectories of interstellar atoms measured by the NASA/IBEX satellite


The heliosphere is a large structure in outer space, encompassing most of the solar system; it is defined by an interior that is filled with solar wind (a small fraction of the solar atmosphere constantly blown into outer space), and bounded externally by interstellar gas. Both these gases are ionized (they are plasmas). Interstellar neutral atoms also are part of the interstellar medium, and they are not directly affected by either of the charged plasmas, and traverse the entire heliosphere on more predictable paths (essentially unbound Kepler orbits).  The project deals with neutral atoms from the local interstellar medium going through the heliosphere, being influenced by solar gravity, and being measured by NASA’s IBEX satellite at Earth. The project focuses on calculating many such trajectories in order to connect the measurements by IBEX with the far-distant interstellar state of motion of the neutral atoms. During their journey through the heliosphere, the neutrals suffer losses while interacting with the ionized gases, which adds more complexity to the trajectory calculations. The project is dominated by computer work. The prerequisite is having an affinity for using computers extensively in this way.