An updated model suggests the shape of the Suns bubble of influence, the heliosphere (seen in yellow), may be a deflated croissant shape, rather than the long-tailed comet shape suggested by other research. Credit: Opher, et al
Scientists have developed a new prediction of the shape of the bubble surrounding our solar system using a model developed with data from NASA missions.
All the planets of our solar system are encased in a magnetic bubble, carved out in space by the Suns constantly outflowing material, the solar wind. Outside this bubble is the interstellar medium the ionized gas and magnetic field that fills the space between stellar systems in our galaxy. One question scientists have tried to answer for years is on the shape of this bubble, which travels through space as our Sun orbits the center of our galaxy. Traditionally, scientists have thought of the heliosphere as a comet shape, with a rounded leading edge, called the nose, and a long tail trailing behind.
Research published in Nature Astronomy in March and featured on the journals cover for July provides an alternative shape that lacks this long tail: the deflated croissant.
The shape of the heliosphere is difficult to measure from within. The closest edge of the heliosphere is more than ten billion miles from Earth. Only the two Voyager spacecraft have directly measured this region, leaving us with just two points of ground-truth data on the shape of the heliosphere.
Some research suggests that the heliosphere has a long tail, much like a comet, though a new model points to a shape that lacks this long tail. Credits: NASAs Scientific Visualization Studio/Conceptual Imaging Lab
From near Earth, we study our boundary to interstellar space by capturing and observing particles flying toward Earth. This includes charged particles that come from distant parts of the galaxy, called galactic cosmic rays, along with those that were already in our solar system, travel out towards the heliopause, and are bounced back towards Earth through a complex series of electromagnetic processes. These are called energetic neutral atoms, and because they are created by interacting with the interstellar medium, they act as a useful proxy for mapping the edge of the heliosphere. This is how NASAs Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX, mission studies the heliosphere, making use of these particles as a kind of radar, tracing out our solar systems boundary to interstellar space.
To make sense of this complex data, scientists use computer models to turn this data into a prediction of the heliospheres characteristics. Merav Opher, lead author of the new research, heads a NASA- and NSF-funded DRIVE Science Center at Boston University focused on the challenge.
This latest iteration of Ophers model uses data from NASA planetary science missions to characterize the behavior of material in space that fills the bubble of the heliosphere and get another perspective on its borders. NASAs Cassini mission carried an instrument, designed to study particles trapped in Saturns magnetic field, that also made observations of particles bouncing back towards the inner solar system. These measurements are similar to IBEXs, but provide a distinct perspective on the heliospheres boundary.
Additionally, NASAs New Horizons mission has provided measurements of pick-up ions, particles that are ionized out in space and are picked up and move along with the solar wind. Because of their distinct origins from the solar wind particles streaming out from the Sun, pick-up ions are much hotter than other solar wind particles and its this fact that Ophers work hinges on.
Our heliosphere blocks many cosmic rays, shown as bright streaks in this animated image, from reaching the planets of our solar system. Credit: NASAs Goddard Space Flight Center/Conceptual Image Lab
There are two fluids mixed together. You have one component that is very cold and one component that is much hotter, the pick-up ions, said Opher, a professor of astronomy at Boston University. If you have some cold fluid and hot fluid, and you put them in space, they wont mix they will evolve mostly separately. What we did was separate these two components of the solar wind and model the resulting 3D shape of the heliosphere.
Considering the solar winds components separately, combined with Ophers earlier work using the solar magnetic field as a dominant force in shaping the heliosphere, created a deflated croissant shape, with two jets curling away from the central bulbous part of the heliosphere, and notably lacking the long tail predicted by many scientists.
Because the pick-up ions dominate the thermodynamics, everything is very spherical. But because they leave the system very quickly beyond the termination shock, the whole heliosphere deflates, said Opher.
The shape of the heliosphere is more than a question of academic curiosity: The heliosphere acts our solar systems shield against the rest of the galaxy.
Energetic events in other star systems, like supernova, can accelerate particles to nearly the speed of light. These particles rocket out in all directions, including into our solar system. But the heliosphere acts as a shield: It absorbs about three-quarters of these tremendously energetic particles, called galactic cosmic rays, that would make their way into our solar system.
To understand the potential habitability of exoplanets, it can help scientists to know if our heliosphere more closely resembles the relatively shortened astrosphere of BZ Cam (left), the long astrosphere of Mira (right), or has another shape entirely. Credit: ASA/Casalegno/GALEX
Those that do make it through can wreak havoc. Were protected on Earth by our planets magnetic field and atmosphere, but technology and astronauts in space or on other worlds are exposed. Both electronics and human cells can be damaged by the effects of galactic cosmic rays and because galactic cosmic rays carry so much energy, theyre difficult to block in a way thats practical for space travel. The heliosphere is spacefarers main defense against galactic cosmic rays, so understanding its shape and how that influences the rate of galactic cosmic rays pelting our solar system is a key consideration for planning robotic and human space exploration.
The heliospheres shape is also part of the puzzle for seeking out life on other worlds. The damaging radiation from galactic cosmic rays can render a world uninhabitable, a fate avoided in our solar system because of our strong celestial shield. As we learn more about how our heliosphere protects our solar system and how that protection may have changed throughout the solar systems history we can look for other star systems that might have similar protection. And part of that is the shape: Are our heliospheric lookalikes long-tailed comet shapes, deflated croissants, or something else entirely?
Whatever the heliospheres true shape, an upcoming NASA mission will be a boon for unraveling these questions: the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe, or IMAP.
IMAP, slated for launch in 2024, will map the particles streaming back to Earth from the boundaries of the heliosphere. IMAP will build on the techniques and discoveries of the IBEX mission to shed new light on the nature of the heliosphere, interstellar space, and how galactic cosmic rays make their way into our solar system.
Ophers DRIVE Science Center aims to create a testable model of the heliosphere in time for IMAPs launch. Their predictions of the shape and other characteristics of the heliosphere and how that would be reflected in the particles streaming back from the boundary would provide a baseline for scientists to compare with IMAPs data.
Read Astrophysicists Reveal a New Model of Our Solar Systems Protective Bubble, the Heliosphere for more on this research.
Reference: A small and round heliosphere suggested by magnetohydrodynamic modeling of pick-up ions by Merav Opher, Abraham Loeb, James Drake and Gabor Toth, 16 March 2020, Nature Astronomy.DOI: 10.1038/s41550-020-1036-0
- Space travel: (almost) everything you need to know about ... - October 31st, 2020
- Space exploration - Wikipedia - October 31st, 2020
- The future of space travel could include tourism and ... - October 31st, 2020
- Is Interstellar Travel Really Possible? | Space - October 31st, 2020
- Interstellar travel - Wikipedia - October 31st, 2020
- Spaceflight - Wikipedia - October 31st, 2020
- This floating spaceport in Japan could bring space travel to the city - CNN - October 31st, 2020
- The future of space travel could include tourism and relocation - Washington Examiner - October 31st, 2020
- 5 everyday gadgets inspired by space travel - IOL - October 31st, 2020
- Humans have now lived on the International Space Station for 20 years - Business Insider - Business Insider - October 31st, 2020
- Who can own property on the moon and mars? - The New Indian Express - October 31st, 2020
- NASA breakthrough: Humans could travel to Mars in HALF the time after major development - Daily Express - October 31st, 2020
- Nasa reveals that there is water on the moon in breakthrough that could lead to deep-space travel - The Independent - October 31st, 2020
- Halloween is brought to you by these Florida lobbyists and political associations - Florida Politics - October 31st, 2020
- Horoscope today: Here are the astrological predictions for October 31 - Mumbai Mirror - October 31st, 2020
- What Fast & Furious 10 & 11 Need To Do To Properly End The Fast Saga - Screen Rant - October 31st, 2020
- Alien: Isolation Is Still An Unmatched Horror Experience - GameSpot - October 31st, 2020
- Ghosts, Space Aliens and Monsters - QNotes - October 31st, 2020
- Woah, We're Halfway There: NASA's Perseverance Rover Is Midway to Mars - SciTechDaily - October 31st, 2020
- 'Away' on Netflix: How close it gets to real Mars space travel - Los Angeles Times - September 8th, 2020
- The 'Mighty Mice' That Went To Space Could Help Protect Astronauts' Muscles And Bones - CBS Sacramento - September 8th, 2020
- Top 10 books about space travel - The Guardian - September 8th, 2020
- Space travel on the far horizon - Tennis World USA - September 8th, 2020
- Netflix's Away perfectly captures the boring reality of space travel - Wired.co.uk - September 8th, 2020
- Who is this moron, flying around?: A short history of our disillusionment with space travel - Prospect - September 8th, 2020
- The 'mighty mice' that went to space could help protect astronauts' muscles and bones - FOX10 News - September 8th, 2020
- Cosmonaut Brain Scans Show Space Does Weird Things to Motor Skills And Vision - ScienceAlert - September 8th, 2020
- Mission Gaganyaan: Training Indias Astronauts for Space Travel - The Quint - September 8th, 2020
- 'Away': Hilary Swank series should be much better than it is - Newsday - September 8th, 2020
- What Is It Like to Actually Parent From Space? - Yahoo Lifestyle - September 8th, 2020
- German rocket start-up inaugurates production site in Bavaria - The Star Online - September 8th, 2020
- A NASA Warp Drive Could Be a Reality in the Distant Future - Interesting Engineering - September 8th, 2020
- UK's big advantage that will spark European dominance in post-Brexit space tourism - Daily Express - September 8th, 2020
- Nashville eyes sidewalk dining as a tool to keep restaurants afloat. Could the idea outlast COVID-19? - Tennessean - September 8th, 2020
- How will language change if humans travel the stars? - Slate - September 6th, 2020
- Looking ahead to Mars base, Elon Musk says theres a good chance astronauts could die there - SYFY WIRE - September 6th, 2020
- Netflix's 'Away' Imagines a Future in Which Going to Mars Is Possible - Thrillist - September 6th, 2020
- When It Comes to Virgin Galactic Stock, There Is Absolutely No Rush to Jump In - InvestorPlace - September 6th, 2020
- The Wiggles Address Modes of Travel, Togetherness - GeekDad - September 6th, 2020
- 2020 is the year of the SPAC yet traditional IPOs offer better returns, report finds - MarketWatch - September 6th, 2020
- Making Space: The Female Frontier spotlights the women who shaped space exploration - CNET - September 2nd, 2020
- 10 Interesting Behind-The-Scenes Facts From The Netflix Space Drama Away - Forbes - September 2nd, 2020
- The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Is Funding Some Out of This World Ideas - Interesting Engineering - September 2nd, 2020
- Here are 9 great Netflix short documentaries to watch for inspiration - Yahoo! Voices - September 2nd, 2020
- WATCH | What happens to time when you travel at the speed of light? - Health24 - September 2nd, 2020
- There's a Theory Beyond Relativity That Would Allow You to Fly Through a Wormhole - ScienceAlert - September 2nd, 2020
- Northcoast Veterans Museum looking to expand in Gibonburg - The News-Messenger - September 2nd, 2020
- What CMOs Need To Know About Space Marketing - Forbes - August 25th, 2020
- Could carbon-foam probes bring interstellar flight within reach? - Space.com - August 25th, 2020
- Germs from space could cause havoc in human bodies - Health24 - August 25th, 2020
- Travel: South Side of the Space Coast - Orlando Magazine - August 25th, 2020
- #SpaceWatchGL Opinion: German space policy: the need for a strategy and a corresponding legislation - SpaceWatch.Global - August 25th, 2020
- Neil deGrasse Tyson Reveals the Wonders of Space, and His Personal Space at Home - Mansion Global - August 25th, 2020
- This NASA Animation Shows What It's Really Like to Travel Close to The Speed of Light - ScienceAlert - August 25th, 2020
- Virgin Galactic Just Got $460 Million Reasons to Stay the Course - InvestorPlace - August 25th, 2020
- What you need to buy if you have to get on a plane right now - CNN - August 25th, 2020
- Spider-Woman is Heading To Space With Captain Marvel - Screen Rant - August 25th, 2020
- There's No Logic in Buying Virgin Galactic Stock - InvestorPlace - August 25th, 2020
- 'Go home and hug and kiss your loved ones,' lake tragedy mother tells funeral - Independent.ie - August 25th, 2020
- Friday essay: vizards, face gloves and window hoods a history of masks in western fashion - The Conversation AU - August 25th, 2020
- The Final Frontier: Space Stocks To Watch - Trefis - August 10th, 2020
- As The Agents Of SHIELD Finale Looms, Remembering Its Impressive Achievement - Forbes - August 10th, 2020
- Places That May Make You Feel Like You're Traveling in Space - Peter Greenberg.com Travel News - August 10th, 2020
- In space, bacteria is even more deadly and resilient to antibiotics - The Next Web - August 10th, 2020
- The Martian' movie's toilet tuber could happen: NASA testing machine that turns poop into veggie fertilizer - SYFY WIRE - August 10th, 2020
- Virgin Galactic's Supersonic Jet Is a Commercial Failure in the Making - The Motley Fool - August 10th, 2020
- What leaders can learn from astronauts to build more connected remote teams - Business Insider - Business Insider - August 10th, 2020
- Mission to the Red Planet from NASA in Alabama - AL.com - August 10th, 2020
- With Her Restaurant Forced to Close, Sat Kampars Chef Pivots to Pop-Ups - Eater Philly - August 10th, 2020
- Sims 4 new game pack theories and hints: Underwater? Star Wars? Space? - Extra Time Media - August 10th, 2020
- 24 Classic Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books To Read Based On Your Favorite Star Trek Character - Star Trek - August 10th, 2020
- The Science of It: Space Travel - WESH 2 Orlando - August 10th, 2020
- The Science Books We're Reading in Fall 2020 - Discover Magazine - August 10th, 2020
- Star Trek: Where Kirk Is During Discovery Season 1 & 2 Revealed - Screen Rant - August 10th, 2020
- Virgin Galactic partners with Rolls-Royce as it looks to build an aircraft for supersonic air travel - CNBC - August 9th, 2020
- Forget SpaceX: Invest in This Instead - Wealth Daily - August 9th, 2020
- Wawa Puts Kids Meals on the Menu Across Its Network - CSNews Online - August 9th, 2020
- Space Tourism: 5 Space Companies That Will Make You An ... - August 9th, 2020
- The 12 Greatest Challenges for Space Exploration | WIRED - August 9th, 2020
- SpaceX return: How Nasa astronauts' splashdown has changed the future of space travel - The Independent - August 9th, 2020