Voyagers Find Giant Jacuzzi-like Bubbles at Edge of Solar System


The barrier at the edge of our Solar System may not be the smooth shield that scientists once thought. The venerable Voyager spacecraft have detected a huge, turbulent sea of magnetic bubbles in the heliosheath — the interface between the heliosphere and interstellar space — similar to an actively bubbling Jacuzzi tub. At a briefing today, scientists said the finding is significant as “we now will have to change our view of how the Sun interacts with the Solar System,” said Arik Posner, Voyager program scientist at NASA Headquarters. But it also means that the “force field” that surrounds the entire Solar System may be letting in more harmful cosmic rays and energetic particles than previously thought.

Over 30 years into their mission, the Voyagers are still monitoring their environment and sending back data. In 2007, scientists noticed that Voyager 1 recorded dramatic dips and rises in the amount of electrons it encountered as it traveled through the heliosphere, the barrier that surrounds the entire Solar System and is created by the Sun’s magnetic field. Voyager 2 made similar observations of these charged particles in 2008.

Computer simulation of the magnetic reconnection in the heliosheath, which look like bubbles, or sausages. Credit: NASA/J.F. Drake, M. Swisdak, M. Opher

Using a new computer model to analyze the data, scientists found the Sun’s distant magnetic field is likely made up of bubbles approximately 100 million miles (160 million kilometers) wide — “like long sausages,” said Merav Opher at the briefing, an astronomer at Boston University who is the lead author of a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal.

And the bubbles are moving around, with oscillations of plus or minus 10 to 20 km. “It is very bubbly as far as we can tell,” Jim Drake from the University of Maryland said at the press conference. “The entire thing is bubbly, like where the jets come out from a Jacuzzi.”

Opher said the bubbles, while not visible from Earth, cover a large portion of the sky at about 38 degrees latitude and as the solar winds “bumps” up against the heliopause, the bubbles fill up the entire region next to the heliopause.

Like Earth, our Sun has a magnetic field with a north pole and a south pole. The field lines are stretched outward, and as the sun rotates, the solar wind twists them into a spiral as they are carried outward.
The bubbles are created when magnetic field lines reorganize. The new model suggests the field lines are broken up into self-contained structures disconnected from the solar magnetic field.

These magnetic bubbles should act as electron traps, so the spacecraft would experience higher than normal electron bombardment as they traveled through the bubbles.

But the implications of this new finding, said Opher, is also that the heliosheath is very different from what scientists expected. She prefaced by saying that any earlier ideas about the region was only conjecture since no spacecraft has been there before. “We thought heliopause would be a smooth surface and shield us from intergalactic cosmic rays,” she said. “It is not a shield but more like a membrane that is a sea of bubbles.”

One argument would say the bubbles would seem to be a very porous shield, allowing lots of cosmic rays through the gaps. But another view would be that cosmic rays could get trapped inside the bubbles, making the bubbling froth a very good shield indeed.

However, the scientists are still working on figuring out exactly what these bubbles are. The Voyagers’ instruments, while still working fine, are being tested in this new region of space. “The magnetic instruments on Voyager were designed to measure magnetic fields, but they are right at very edge of what the instruments are capable of sensing,” said Drake. “The magnetic field is very weak. While trying to find out what these magnetic bubbles are, we haven’t reached that moment where we say, ‘yes, that is it.’ We’d like to be able to pin it down much better.”

This video from NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center helps to visually explain the new findings:

Sources: NASA press conference, NASA’s Sun/Earth briefing materials, press release, more videos and visuals can be found at this Goddard webpage

You can follow Universe Today senior editor Nancy Atkinson on Twitter: @Nancy_A. Follow Universe Today for the latest space and astronomy news on Twitter @universetoday and on Facebook.

49 Replies to “Voyagers Find Giant Jacuzzi-like Bubbles at Edge of Solar System”

  1. Wow. What is this ribbon mentioned in the video?

    I hope the Voyagers manage to keep functioning past the Bow Shock. I would love to see some instruments put to work in interstellar space!

    1. As I understand it, one of the Voyager’s is already dead, and the other one just passed this tenuous limit . I may be mistaken in this, ? Comment?

      1. Both Voyagers are still working. It’s estimated that their Plutonium cores will continue putting out energy till around 2020. Hopefully this will allow them to reach interstellar space while in operation. No one really knows for sure exactly when these probes will traverse the Bow Shock.

      2. You are right Fred, but I was under the impression that we lost contact with Voyager ll several years ago, but were still receiving data from Vl ?
        I admit I am not current on this.

      3. You might be thinking of the Spirit rover on Mars. It failed to revive after the Martian winter and received a JPL death certificate a couple of weeks ago. Mars has dirt, grit and stuff to wear out machines. V-1 and V-2 are out in the deep cold, and in some ways cold is good — or better than heat.


  2. Yo Tammy, and other authors on UT, please note that according to the I.A.U. Style Manual:

    The IAU formally recommends that the initial letters of the names of individual astronomical objects should be printed as capitals; e.g., Earth, Sun, Moon, etc. “The Earth’s equator” and “Earth is a planet in the Solar System” are examples of correct spelling according to these rules.

    1. And the salutation “Yo” is appropriate when calling one to task for incorrect nomenclature?

      1. Also, “capitalized with an initial upper case letter”?

        As opposed to capitalized with a terminal lower case letter?

        Seems the pedant could do well to avoid such redundancies.

      2. LOL @squidgeny

        Initial caps, title caps, sentence case capping (even ballcapping), what ever one says about them, caps are cool and useful. Pedants just are, of course, the coolest of folks, they can’t be bested.

        I hope to be a pedant when I grow up…


      3. Oh No! Mary, please do not grow up! Expand outwards at an increasing rate! And to Hell with the “Red-Shift” !

  3. here is a thought: The “shield” and or bow wave of our solar system probably is affected by: myriad gravitational forces from all sides,dimensions, Eh and times.That this is not a uniform structure is not surprising Actually, if it were not would be amazing!.

  4. There are a couple of points which have to be made. If you were riding on Voyager I you would see nothing. There would be nothing more than blackness, stars and the sun would appear to be just an unusually bright star. It would be cold — really cold, about 20K. All of those pictures of ribbon sheaths and the bubbles are just visual ways of illustrating a model.

    This gets to the next point. This is a model based upon the cosmic ray flux differences between the two Voyagers. The diffuse plasma is compressed as it reaches the interstellar region and magnetic flux increases. A charged cosmic ray is subjected to a force F = evxB, for e = charge, v = velocity of particle and B = magnetic field. The “x” represents the cross product. So if the Voyager spacecraft passes through regions where there are different magnetic field fluxes there will be different rates of cosmic rays detection. The Voyager II is not passing through this bow shock region and so does not detect these variations. These data are put together to form this particular model. Similar variations in cosmic ray fluxes measured prior to reaching this bow region were also used to construct the “ribbon model.”

    EU alert is also in order, so Uncle Fred needs a head’s up. Please folks, unless you have some relevant question or piece of information to impart, don’t spin off nonsensical stuff and post it here.


    1. The article of the moment seems to be the Comet Elenin one. It’s attracting the doomsday crowd like nats to a heat lap.

      Hopefully, I’m starting to figure out which articles to dedicate attention too.

      PS: I corrected a comment I made on Voyager 2 below. Just to be sure, Voyager 1 “is” on course to pass through the Bow Shock, correct?

      1. It is my understanding that V-I is passing through this region. It is too bad there is not another craft entering the leeward side of this.

        It does seem odd that there is such a doomsday crowd with respect to comets and the like. It seems we have not gotten over our medieval worries. If people want to go looking for doom, all they have to do is look in the bathroom mirror — there is the problem and it is us. Thomas Friedman has written a book “Earth if Full,” which I have not read yet, but have read some reviews. It is interesting that a NY Times neo-con panegyric of the last decade would be fiddling this tune. What might be called “doom-porn” can get tiresome IMO, but we do have some real problems, and certainly not from comets.


      2. These Domesday crowd are desperate on anything else that get discovered because their big prediction seems to fail big time. Planets refuse to pop up from behind the sun, solar flares that come at the wrong timing and do nothing, black holes that refuse to blow up or something,…

        They actually latch onto anything, comet, tiny asteroids, the big ribbon, the discovery of the 2 lack holes, Tyche, and probably this news here too as some kind if sign that the Mayans all knew about EU.

        These people are really hurting young children as young as 9 and young moms.

      3. The doomsterism of our age does have an element of reality to it. Since July 16, 1945 we have indeed had the machinery capable of ending our tenure here. This has been compounded by other looming problems, such as climate change. However, this gets wound up with other things, including religious ideas about the end of the world. We also have a lot of uncertainty right now. The economy is on shaky ground, we have had a major nuclear meltdown in Japan, and things in general look pretty dodgy right now. Transferring these fears to something celestial gives one a sense of resigning any responsibility for the problems of the day.


      4. Actually what does in most species (and societies) is change of environment.

        H. sapiens is a very versatile generalist so I have high hopes for the species. It will most likely rapidly evolve into something different as most hominids have managed.

        As for societies, the current one seems the most robust ever. We have weathered dry spells, plagues, famines and so on on a scale that no other society before us.

      5. Thanks for your efforts Uncle Fred, that’s a lot of post operation to go through though for us readers, carry on.

        Is the flag account being forwarded to you as it was hoped and is that working well.

        As far as I know, you are correct with your current direction and vehicle. Only time will tell us what the ISM will do to the electronics on board but we can hope for some science to come after that event occurs, only if we chase after and inspect the craft ourselves.

        The bow shock is thought to be rather thick at the point of entry by V1. According to Robert Nemiroff and Jerry Bonnell of NASA, the solar bow shock may lie at around 230 AU from the Sun.

        Current distance from the sun for V1 is greater than 116 AU, the figure I remember from the end of last year 2010; there is little chance there is another digit added over this short interval though, more likely 1/3 to 3/8ths of a digit in the 6 months since then. By the time V1 is in the Bow Shock any science to be done might well be via the ‘old toss a line and call out the twain you mark’, but course V1 will have no radio after 2020 to relay these data points to us here on Earth.

        The power cord is getting very stretched at this point, there is not much to be done for science and transmission back to us here on Earth if the plug is pulled on the instruments because of lack of power.


    2. While I agree that we should remain on topic and not for instance talk about grandma’s dirty socks. My question to you is: Who nominated you to moderate this discussion?

  5. So this new data suggest some kind of energetic connection with cosmic particles and our sun. That is probably one of the most fascinating aspects should it turn out to be verified.

    Hope for more accurate data now lies with Nasa’s ‘Vision Mission’ to the heliosphere.The Voyager spacecraft have demonstrated that theory based on indirect observation is no substitute for direct exploration, however their instruments lack precision.

    This new spacecraft is ‘proposed’ to be powered by some kind of nuclear electric propulsion:) Best launch date is 2014 and its a 25 year (best option) transit to the heliosphere. I would love to see a LISA concept spacecraft combined with this one. Lasers designed to measure theoretical gravitational waves ‘should’ do a splendid job of measuring weak magnetic fields over a large area. (If they find some gravitational waves as well, bonus!)

    Can it be done in 2 years?

    1. @Damian

      You say:
      So this new data suggest some kind of energetic connection with cosmic particles and our sun. That is probably one of the most fascinating aspects should it turn out to be verified.

      My reply: refer to for more about this.

      The re-connection of the solar magnetic field (the froth as it were) causes the path taken by charged particles (such as cosmic rays) to ‘not be straight lines’.

      The cosmic rays which originate from that particular quadrant are much the same as cosmic rays from any other quad. All are subatomic particles traveling at relativistic speeds having high (10^20 eV) energy levels, much higher than we can achieve via our efforts with particle accelerators to date.

      The positive charge dominance in primary cosmic rays and the nature of the solar magnetic field plays a large part in the attraction many EU folks have with this subject but the simple facts do not support this fascination with any amount of signification.

      Since charged particles tend to move in the direction of field lines and not across them the froth of magnetic reconnection oblates guide any charged particle in a myriad of directions within the 3d ‘chunk’ of the frothy interface of our heliosphere to the interstellar medium (ISM). Think of this as a pin and ball experiment but in more than the 2 dimensions usually demonstrated. The place where the cosmic primary ‘ray’ emerges may be far from the entrance point even if still within the quadrant.

      The froth changes over time, with the amount of solar activity, with the movement of our entire system within the arm of the galaxy we are a part of and bound to; the answers are not simple or straightforward.

      The size of each bubble, the depth of the bubble field, the turbulent magnetic nature of that field, all play a part in the path and the determination of any such path is a matter for statistical analytic algebra and geometry modeling.

      As to the ability of lasers measuring weak EM fields via minor changes in the interferometry or using a LISA like array… I don’t think so. LIGO was only 4 km, LISA is to orbit the sun at 1 AU and have three arms. These distances are needed for gravity waves and EM field changes do not require these distances I agree, but there are other ways to measure what is of interest to us in this froth, this Sturm und Drang within our heliosheath.


      1. @ Mary

        Thanks for your eloquent response regarding cosmic particles. From the article presented here it is suggested that; ‘The Bubbles act as electron traps for energetic cosmic particles until they find smooth magnetic field lines and follow them back to our sun”. I would be most interested in knowing how much energy our sun receives from this dynamic system and in a broader sense what implications this might have for star formation. (if any). Speculatively its interesting that the sun is not a ‘closed’ system, even if the energy levels are weak, the fact that information transfers occur poses questions towards its function.

        Re LISA and Laser Interferometry. LISA may not be designed to measure magnetic fields, however it could be with modification. (ready about lithium niobate (LiNbO3) Mach-Zehnder optical interferometers) I’m more interested in the Spacecrafts ability to operate as a triad over large distances. Even though LISA is designed as a Zero Drag Satellite and would technically face challenges by traveling at high velocity. Conceptually putting a measuring instrument in the heliosphere that can collect data over 5-million-kilometer distances is appealing.


      2. This new spacecraft is ‘proposed’ to be powered by some kind of nuclear electric propulsion

        From your own references: no, of course not. Considering the mission time it must use well know, reliable technology: a nuclear source for electric and thermal energy (an RTG, as usual), and an ion thruster (now well tested).

        I would be most interested in knowing how much energy our sun receives from this dynamic system

        That would be the cosmic rays, and they are already known. The EM part doesn’t couple back to the sun.

        the fact that information transfers occur

        Well, of course! _All forms of complete randomness maximizes information_ in a channel, so all these mechanisms (cosmic rays, field reconnection) creates and “transfers information”.

        The interesting part happens when stuff orders and “information transfer” is _lowered_.

        [rant] Why is it that people get started on information woo? Isn’t quantum woo and EM (“EU”) woo enough any longer? Is it so hard to look up what “information” actually means? [/rant]

      3. @ Torbjörn Larsson

        [rant] Why is it that people get started on information woo? Isn’t quantum woo and EM (“EU”) woo enough any longer? Is it so hard to look up what “information” actually means? [/rant]

        Sorry to infringe on your well defined understanding of everything, must be gratifying to be so knowledgeable. I just wish you would desist on placing my comments in a ‘crackpot’ context. Not everyone has such a ‘solid’ understanding on ‘everything’ as you.

        I will go further and say that no ‘crackpot’ theory’s were presented in this thread, however collectively how many mentions of EU (whatever that is) have been used in the comments? This is a blanket marketing of their cause by absentia. Have you never heard the term; “dont feed the trolls?”

      4. Please forgive our Torbjörn, he’s a bit trigger-happy, sometimes, due to previous bad experiences with the “Electric Universe” brigade that used to plague the comments section on Universe Today.

  6. very interesting…must think about the fusion or proton-proton reaction,where electrons and positrons dissolve each other to energy.

    1. First, nothing here speaks of fusion.

      Second, protons are made up of quarks (and gluons).

      In an atom you would have a possibility of electrons visiting the nucleus (but where would the positron come from?), but mostly when nuclei fuse they are already fully ionized. The electron density of stars are thus smeared out, and I don’t think it is important in fusion.

    2. First, nothing here speaks of fusion.

      Second, protons are made up of quarks (and gluons).

      In an atom you would have a possibility of electrons visiting the nucleus (but where would the positron come from?), but mostly when nuclei fuse they are already fully ionized. The electron density of stars are thus smeared out, and I don’t think it is important in fusion.

      1. So “get out” equals “visit America” now, does it? 🙂 All I needed to know was that ‘jacuzzi’ is a company that makes spas. If the article had referred to spa-like bubbles, it would have been perfectly comprehensible to an international audience (including Australians like me).

      2. actually! “Jacuzzi” Was the name of the man that developed that!
        Buena Serra! Glug Glug!

  7. Solution: Gentle pulsating waves to break up the bubbles before they completely breech the

  8. Awesome! This promises to explain so much.

    Alas, nitpicks:


    A beef with NASA: I note that the heliotail, that was rejected by IBEX, is still very much alive in the imagination of artists. (Even Wikipedia picked up on that in the illustrations here.)


    “bubbles approximately 100 million miles (160 million kilometers) wide”.

    Or, in layman’s terms, 1 AU. =D

  9. Note cosmic ray “hot spots” discovered by observatories at South Pole, New Mexico and Tibet. A relationship to the Voyager data may exist. Birkeland currents and a solar electric circuit seem increasingly reasonable to hypothesize.

  10. “Initial caps, title caps, sentence case capping (even ballcapping), what ever one says about them, caps are cool and useful.”

    I vote for knee-capping…

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