Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


IBEX: Glimpses of the Interstellar Material Beyond 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 neighborhood 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. IBEX counted those atoms in 2009 and 2010 and has now captured the best and most complete glimpse of the material that lies so far outside our own system.

The results? It's an alien environment out there: 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," says 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.

In a series of science papers appearing in the Astrophysics Journal on January 31, 2012, scientists report that for every 20 neon atoms in the galactic wind, there are 74 oxygen atoms. In our own solar system, however, for every 20 neon atoms there are 111 oxygen atoms. That translates to more oxygen in any given slice of the solar system than in the local interstellar space.

"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 provides 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.

Previous spacecraft have already provided some information about the way the galactic wind interacts with the heliosheath. Ulysses, for one, observed incoming helium as it traveled past Jupiter and measured it traveling at 59,000 miles per hour. IBEX's new information, however, shows the galactic wind traveling not only at a slower speed -- around 52,000 miles per hour -- but from a different direction, most likely offset by some four degrees from previous measurements. Such a difference may not initially seem significant, but it amounts to a full 20% difference in how much pressure the galactic wind exerts on the heliosphere.

"Measuring the pressure on our heliosphere from the material in the galaxy and from the magnetic fields out there," says Christian, "will help determine the size and shape of our solar system as it travels through the galaxy."

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 traveling at different speeds. The solar system and its heliosphere moved into our local cloud at some point during the last 45,000 years.

Since the older Ulysses observations of the galactic wind speed was in between the speeds expected for the local cloud and the adjacent cloud, researchers thought perhaps the solar system didn't lie smack in the middle of this cloud, but might be at the boundary, transitioning into a new region of space. IBEX's results, however, show that we remain fully in the local cloud, at least for the moment.

"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 says.

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.

"This set of papers provide many of the first direct measurements of the interstellar medium around us," says McComas. "We've been trying to understand our galaxy for a long time, and with all of these observations together, we are taking a major step forward in knowing what the local part of the galaxy is like."

Voyager 1 could cross out of our solar system within the next few years. By combining the data from several sets of NASA instruments – Ulysses, Voyager, IBEX and others – we are on the precipice of stepping outside and understanding the complex environment beyond our own frontier for the first time.

The Southwest Research Institute developed and leads the IBEX mission with a team of national and international partners. The spacecraft is one of NASA's series of low-cost, rapidly developed missions in the Small Explorers Program. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate.

For more information about the IBEX mission, go to:
Karen C. Fox
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD

Susan Hendrix | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Move over, lasers: Scientists can now create holograms from neutrons, too
21.10.2016 | National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

nachricht Finding the lightest superdeformed triaxial atomic nucleus
20.10.2016 | The Henryk Niewodniczanski Institute of Nuclear Physics Polish Academy of Sciences

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia

21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016 | Information Technology

From ancient fossils to future cars

21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>