At first glance, it looks like something from an alien autopsy. A strange organ cut from a xenomorph’s thorax, under the flickering lights of an operating room in a top secret government facility, with venous tendrils dangling down to the floor, dripping viscous slime. (X-Com anyone?)
Every second of every day, our sun spits out a stream of tiny high-energy particles, known as the solar wind. This wind blows throughout the solar system, extending far beyond the orbits of the planets and out into interstellar space.
But the farther from the sun the wind gets, the more slowly it streams, changing from the raging torrent that the inner planets experience (strong enough to cause the aurora) into nothing more than an annoying drizzle. And far enough away – about twice the orbit of Neptune – it meets and mingles with all the random bits of energetic junk just floating around amongst the stars.
Only two of humanity’s spacecraft have left the Solar System: NASA’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Voyager 1 left the heliosphere behind in 2012, while Voyager 2 did the same on Nov. 5th, 2018. Now Voyager 2 has been in interstellar space for one year, and five new papers are presenting the scientific results from that one year.
While it’s true that there’s no air to carry sound in space, starship explosions would be strangely silent and no one can hear you scream, this latest Science @ NASA video reminds us that “space can make music, if you know how to listen.”
And the “how” in this case is with the Plasma Wave Science Experiment aboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which is now playing the sounds of interstellar space — with a little help from University of Iowa physics professor and experiment principal investigator Don Gurnett. Watch the video above for a front-row seat (and read more about Voyager’s historic crossing of the heliosphere here.)
Our Solar System is moving through interstellar space and scientists have long thought that the “bubble” around our Solar System – called the heliosphere – might have a tail, similar to how a comet has a tail or how other stars have astrospheres. But that has all been conjecture…. until now.
The IBEX spacecraft (Interstellar Boundary Explorer) has now seen the tail and has mapped out its structure. IBEX scientists were surprised to see the tail has twists and turns, with four separate “lobes,” making it appear somewhat like a four-leaf clover. This downwind region of the heliosphere is called the heliotail.
“Scientists have always presumed that the heliosphere had a tail,” said Eric Christian, IBEX mission scientist, speaking during a Google+ Hangout announcing the new findings. “But this is actually the first real data that we have to give us the shape of the tail.”
IBEX measures the neutral particles created by collisions at the solar system’s boundaries. This technique, called energetic neutral atom imaging, relies on the fact that the paths of neutral particles are not affected by the solar magnetic field. Instead, the particles travel in a straight line from collision to IBEX. Consequently, observing where the neutral particles came from describes what is going on in these distant regions.
“By collecting these energetic neutral atoms, IBEX provides maps of the original charged particles,” said David McComas, lead author on the team’s paper and principal investigator for IBEX at Southwest Research Institute. “The structures in the heliotail are invisible to our eyes, but we can use this trick to remotely image the outermost regions of our heliosphere.”
What they found was unexpected, McComas said.
“By very carefully assembling the statistical observations from the first three years of IBEX data we’ve been able to fill in what we couldn’t see before,” McComas said during the Hangout, “and what we found was that the heliotail was a much larger structure with a much more interesting configuration.
What they found was a tail that appears to have a combination of fast and slow moving particles. There are two lobes of slower particles on the sides, with faster particles above and below. The entire structure is twisted from the pushing and pulling of magnetic fields outside the solar system. McComas likened it to a how a beach ball might twist around if it was attached to a bungee cord.
The IBEX scientists speaking during the Hangout today said this new information will help us understand what the Voyager spacecraft may encounter as they reach the edge of our Solar System.
“IBEX and Voyager are incredibly complimentary missions,” said Christian. “I’ve often said that IBEX is like an MRI, where it can take an image to understand the big picture of what is going on, where the Voyagers are like biopsies, where we can see what is going on in the local area.”
This was the first time a NASA used a Google+ Hangout to broadcast a press briefing. You can watch the full Hangout below:
You can read David McComas’ blog post on the new findings here, and NASA’s press release here.
Far away, deep in the dark, near the edge of interstellar space, Voyager 1 and 2 are hurtling near the tenuous edge of the magnetic bubble surrounding the Sun known as the heliosphere and NASA wants you to ride along.
The Voyager website sports a new feature showing cosmic ray data. NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System, a popular Web-based interactive tool, contains a new Voyager module, that not only lets you ride along for the Voyagers’ journeys but also shows important scientific data flowing from the spacecraft.
[Warning:Play with this tool at your own risk. Interacting with this online feature can seriously impact your time; in an educational way, of course!]
As Voyager 1 explores the outer limits of the heliosphere, where the breath from our Sun is just a whisper, scientists are looking for three key signs that the spacecraft has left our solar system and entered interstellar space, or the space between stars. Voyager 1 began heading for the outer Solar System after zipping through the Saturn system in 1980.
The new module contains three gauges, updated every six hours from real data from Voyager 1 and 2, that indicate the level of fast-moving particles, slower-moving particles and the direction of the magnetic field. Fast-moving charged particles, mainly protons, come from distant stars and originate from outside the heliosphere. Slower-moving particles, also mainly protons, come from within the heliosphere. Scientists are looking for the levels of outside particles to jump dramatically while inside particles dip. If these levels hold steady, it means the Voyager spacecraft no longer feel the wind from our Sun and the gulf between stars awaits.
Over the past couple of years, data from Voyager 1, the most distant man-made object, show a steady increase of high-powered cosmic radiation indicating the edge is near, scientists say. Voyager 1 appears to have reached the last region before interstellar space. Scientists dubbed the region the “magnetic highway.” Particles from outside are streaming in while particles from inside are streaming out. Voyager 2’s instruments detect slight drops in inside particles but scientists don’t think the probe has entered the area yet.
Scientists also expect a change in the direction of the magnetic field. While particle data is updated every six hours, analyses of the magnetic field data usually takes a few months to prepare.
Although launched first, Voyager 2 lags behind its twin Voyager 1 by more than 20 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. Voyager 2 blasted off August 20, 1977 aboard a Titan-Centaur rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The nuclear-powered craft visited Jupiter and Saturn with an additional mission, called the Grand Tour, to study Uranus and Neptune. Voyager 1 launched two weeks later on September 5, 1977. With a faster flight path, Voyager 1 arrived at Jupiter four months before its sister craft. Voyager 1 went on to study Saturn before using the ringed planet’s gravity field to slingshot it up and out of the plane of the solar system toward the constellation Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer.
NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System allows viewers to hitch a ride with any of NASA’s spacecraft as they explore the solar system. Time can be slowed for a near approach of a moon or asteroid or sped up to coast between the planets. Watch close at just the right moment and you can witness one of the spacecrafts roll maneuvers. All spacecraft movements are based on actual spacecraft navigation data.
As the venerable Voyager 1 spacecraft hurtles ever outward, breaking through the very borders of our solar system at staggering speeds upwards of 35,000 mph, it’s sending back information about the curious region of space where the Sun’s outward flow of energetic particles meets the more intense cosmic radiation beyond — a boundary called the heliosheath.
Voyager 1 has been traveling through this region for the past seven years, all the while its instruments registering gradually increasing levels of cosmic ray particles. But recently the levels have been jumping up and down, indicating something new is going on… perhaps Voyager 1 is finally busting through the breakers of our Sun’s cosmic bay into the open ocean of interstellar space?
Data sent from Voyager 1 — a trip that currently takes the information nearly 17 hours to make — have shown steadily increasing levels of cosmic radiation as the spacecraft moves farther from the Sun. But on July 28, the levels of high-energy cosmic particles detected by Voyager jumped by 5 percent, with levels of lower-energy radiation from the Sun dropping by nearly half later the same day. Within three days both levels had returned to their previous states.
The last time such a jump in levels occurred was in May — and that spike took a week to happen.
“The increase and the decrease are sharper than we’ve seen before, but that’s also what we said about the May data,” said Edward Stone, the Voyager project scientist based at the California Institute of Technology. “The data are changing in ways that we didn’t expect, but Voyager has always surprised us with new discoveries.”
The graph below shows the jump in cosmic particles detected starting May 2012.
Over 11 billion miles (18 billion km) from home, Voyager 1 has been cruising through space since its launch on September 5, 1977. Its twin, Voyager 2, was launched two weeks earlier and is currently 9.3 billion miles (15 billion km) away. Both spacecraft are healthy and continue to communicate with Earth, and will both eventually break through the borders of our solar system and enter true interstellar space. If they are still operational when that happens — and there’s no reason that they shouldn’t be — we will finally get a sense of what conditions are like “out there”.
Although Voyager 1 is registering intriguing fluctuations in radiation from both inside and outside the Solar System, it’s not quite there yet.
“Our two veteran Voyager spacecraft are hale and healthy as they near the 35th anniversary of their launch,” said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager based at JPL in Pasadena. “We know they will cross into interstellar space. It’s just a question of when.”
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.
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:
A year ago, researchers from the IBEX mission – NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer – announced the discovery of an unexpected bright band or ribbon of surprisingly high energy emissions at the boundary between our solar system and interstellar space. Now, after a year of observations, scientists have seen vast changes, including an unusual knot in the ribbon which appears to have ‘untied.’ Changes in the ribbon — a ‘disturbance in the force,’ so to speak, along with a shrunken heliosphere, may be allowing galactic cosmic rays to leak into our solar system. Continue reading “Mysterious Ribbon at Edge of Solar System is Changing”
Though the Cassini mission has focused intently on scientific exploration of Saturn and its moons, data taken by the spacecraft has significantly changed the way astronomers think about the shape of our Solar System. As the Sun and planets travel through space, the bubble in which they reside has been thought to resemble a comet, with a long tail and blunt nose. Recent data from Cassini combined with that of other instruments, shows that the local intertstellar magnetic field shapes the heliosphere differently.
The Solar System resides in a bubble in the interstellar medium – called the “heliosphere” – which is created by the solar wind. The shape carved out of the interstellar dust by the solar wind has been thought for the past 50 years to resemble a comet, with a long tail and blunted nose shape, caused by the motion of the Solar System through the dust.
The shape of the heliosphere was previously thought to have been carved out solely by the interaction of the solar wind particles with the interstellar medium, the resulting “drag” creating a wispy tail. The new data suggests, however, that the interstellar magnetic field slips around the heliosphere and the outer shell, called the heliosheath, leaving the spherical shape of the heliosphere intact. Below is an image representing what the heliosphere was thought to look like before the new data.
The new data also provide a much clearer indication of how thick the heliosheath is, between 40 and 50 astronomical units. This means that NASA’s Voyager spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, which are both traveling through the heliosheath now, will cross into interstellar space before the year 2020. Previous estimates had put that date as far back as 2030.
MIMI was originally designed to take measurements of Saturn’s magnetosphere and surrounding energetic charged particle environment. Since Cassini is far away from the Sun, though, it also places the spacecraft in a unique position to measure the energetic neutral atoms coming from the boundaries of the heliosphere. Energetic neutral atoms form when cold, neutral gas comes into contact with electrically-charged particles in a plasma cloud. The positively-charged ions in plasma can’t reclaim their own electrons, so they steal those of the cold gas atoms. The resulting particles are then neutrally charged, and able to escape the pull of magnetic fields and travel into space.
Energetic neutral atoms form in the magnetic fields around planets, but are also emitted by the interaction between the solar wind and the interstellar medium. Tom Krimigis, principal investigator of the Magnetospheric Imaging Instrument (MIMI) at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md and his team weren’t sure if the instruments on Cassini would originally be able to detect sources of energetic neutral atoms from as far out as the heliosphere, but after their four-year study of Saturn, they looked into the data from the instrument to see if any particles had strayed in from sources outside the gas planet. To their surprise, there was enough data to complete a map of the intensity of the atoms, and discovered a belt of hot, high pressure particles where the interstellar wind flows by our heliosheath bubble.
The data from Cassini complements that taken by IBEX and the two Voyager spacecraft. The combined information from IBEX, Cassini and the Voyager missions enabled scientists to complete the picture of our little corner of space. To see a short animation of the heliosphere as mapped by Cassini, go here. The results of the combined imaging were published in Science on November 13th, 2009.