Washington, Feb 1 (ANI): Researchers have now captured the best and most complete glimpse of the material that lies so far outside our solar system.
A great magnetic bubble surrounds the solar system as it cruises through the galaxy. The sun pumps the inside of the bubble full of solar particles that stream out to the edge until they collide with the material that fills the rest of the galaxy, at a complex boundary called the heliosheath.
On the other side of the boundary, electrically charged particles from the galactic wind blow by, but rebound off the heliosheath, never to enter the solar system.
Neutral particles, on the other hand, are a different story. They saunter across the boundary as if it weren't there, continuing on another 7.5 billion miles for 30 years until they get caught by the sun's gravity, and sling shot around the star.
There, NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer lies in wait for them. Known as IBEX for short, this spacecraft methodically measures these samples of the mysterious neighbourhood beyond our home.
IBEX scans the entire sky once a year, and every February, its instruments point in the correct direction to intercept incoming neutral atoms. The recently captured glimpses by IBEX reveal that the material in that galactic wind doesn't look like the same stuff our solar system is made of.
"We've directly measured four separate types of atoms from interstellar space and the composition just doesn't match up with what we see in the solar system," said Eric Christian, mission scientist for IBEX at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
"IBEX's observations shed a whole new light on the mysterious zone where the solar system ends and interstellar space begins."
More than just helping to determine the distribution of elements in the galactic wind, these new measurements give clues about how and where our solar system formed, the forces that physically shape our solar system, and even the history of other stars in the Milky Way.
"Our solar system is different than the space right outside it and that suggests two possibilities," says David McComas the principal investigator for IBEX at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.
"Either the solar system evolved in a separate, more oxygen-rich part of the galaxy than where we currently reside or a great deal of critical, life-giving oxygen lies trapped in interstellar dust grains or ices, unable to move freely throughout space."
Either way, this affects scientific models of how our solar system - and life - formed.
Studying the galactic wind also provided scientists with information about how our solar system interacts with the rest of space, which is congruent with an important IBEX goal.
Classified as a NASA Explorer Mission-a class of smaller, less expensive spacecraft with highly focused research objectives - IBEX's main job is to study the heliosheath, that outer boundary of the solar system's magnetic bubble or heliosphere - where particles from the solar wind meet the galactic wind.
These IBEX measurements also provide information about the cloud of material in which the solar system currently resides. This cloud is called the local interstellar cloud, to differentiate it from the myriad of particle clouds throughout the Milky Way, each travelling at different speeds. The solar system and its heliosphere moved into our local cloud at some point during the last 45,000 years.
"Sometime in the next hundred to few thousand years, the blink of an eye on the timescales of the galaxy, our heliosphere should leave the local interstellar cloud and encounter a much different galactic environment," McComas added.
In addition to providing insight into the interaction between the solar system and its environment, these new results also hold clues about the history of material in the universe.
While the big bang initially created hydrogen and helium, only the supernovae explosions at the end of a giant star's life can spread the heavier elements of oxygen and neon through the galaxy. Knowing the amounts of such elements in space can help map how the galaxy has evolved and changed over time. (ANI)
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