Strange Cloud at Edge of Solar System

The Solar System is passing through an interstellar cloud that physics says should not exist.

“Using data from Voyager, we have discovered a strong magnetic field just outside the solar system,” explains lead author Merav Opher, a NASA Heliophysics Guest Investigator from George Mason University. “This magnetic field holds the interstellar cloud together and solves the long-standing puzzle of how it can exist at all.”

Left: Voyager flies through the outer bounds of the heliosphere en route to interstellar space. A strong magnetic field reported by Opher et al in the Dec. 24, 2009, issue of Nature is delineated in yellow. [larger image]

The discovery has implications for the future when the solar system will eventually bump into other, similar clouds in our arm of the Milky Way galaxy.

Astronomers call the cloud we’re running into now the Local Interstellar Cloud or “Local Fluff” for short. It’s about 30 light years wide and contains a wispy mixture of hydrogen and helium atoms at a temperature of 6000 C. The existential mystery of the Fluff has to do with its surroundings. About 10 million years ago, a cluster of supernovas exploded nearby, creating a giant bubble of million-degree gas. The Fluff is completely surrounded by this high-pressure supernova exhaust and should be crushed or dispersed by it.

“The observed temperature and density of the local cloud do not provide enough pressure to resist the ‘crushing action’ of the hot gas around it,” says Opher.

So how does the Fluff survive? The Voyagers have found an answer.

“Voyager data show that the Fluff is much more strongly magnetized than anyone had previously suspected—between 4 and 5 microgauss*,” says Opher. “This magnetic field can provide the extra pressure required to resist destruction.”

NASA’s two Voyager probes have been racing out of the solar system for more than 30 years. They are now beyond the orbit of Pluto and on the verge of entering interstellar space—but they are not there yet.

“The Voyagers are not actually inside the Local Fluff,” says Opher. “But they are getting close and can sense what the cloud is like as they approach it.”

The Fluff is held at bay just beyond the edge of the solar system by the sun’s magnetic field, which is inflated by solar wind into a magnetic bubble more than 10 billion km wide. Called the “heliosphere,” this bubble acts as a shield that helps protect the inner solar system from galactic cosmic rays and interstellar clouds. The two Voyagers are located in the outermost layer of the heliosphere, or “heliosheath,” where the solar wind is slowed by the pressure of interstellar gas.

Voyager 1 entered the heliosheath in Dec. 2004; Voyager 2 followed almost 3 years later in Aug. 2007. These crossings were key to Opher et al‘s discovery.

see captionLeft: The anatomy of the heliosphere. Since this illustration was made, Voyager 2 has joined Voyager 1 inside the heliosheath, a thick outer layer where the solar wind is slowed by the pressure of interstellar gas. [larger image]

The size of the heliosphere is determined by a balance of forces: Solar wind inflates the bubble from the inside while the Local Fluff compresses it from the outside. Voyager’s crossings into the heliosheath revealed the approximate size of the heliosphere and, thus, how much pressure the Local Fluff exerts. A portion of that pressure is magnetic and corresponds to the ~5 microgauss Opher’s team has reported in Nature.

The fact that the Fluff is strongly magnetized means that other clouds in the galactic neighborhood could be, too. Eventually, the solar system will run into some of them, and their strong magnetic fields could compress the heliosphere even more than it is compressed now. Additional compression could allow more cosmic rays to reach the inner solar system, possibly affecting terrestrial climate and the ability of astronauts to travel safely through space. On the other hand, astronauts wouldn’t have to travel so far because interstellar space would be closer than ever. These events would play out on time scales of tens to hundreds of thousands of years, which is how long it takes for the solar system to move from one cloud to the next.

“There could be interesting times ahead!” says Opher.

To read the original research, look in the Dec. 24, 2009, issue of Nature for Opher et al’s article, “A strong, highly-tilted interstellar magnetic field near the Solar System.”

Author: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: [email protected] | Voyager Mission Homepage

Source: NASA


Knot in the Ribbon at the Edge of the Solar System ‘Unties’

The unusual “knot” in the bright, narrow ribbon of neutral atoms emanating in from the boundary between our solar system and interstellar space appears to have “untied,” according to a paper published online in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

Researchers believe the ribbon, first revealed in maps produced by NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) spacecraft, forms in response to interactions between interstellar space and the heliosphere, the protective bubble in which the Earth and other planets reside. Sensitive neutral atom detectors aboard IBEX produce global maps of this region every six months.

Analyses of the first map, released last fall, suggest the ribbon is somehow ordered by the direction of the local interstellar magnetic field outside the heliosphere, influencing the structure of the heliosphere more than researchers had previously believed. The knot feature seen in the northern portion of the ribbon in the first map stood apart from the rest of the ribbon as the brightest feature at higher energies.

While the second map, released publicly with the just-published paper, shows the large-scale structure of the ribbon to be generally stable within the six-month period, changes are also apparent. The polar regions of the ribbon display lower emissions and the knot diminishes by as much as a third and appears to “untie” as it spreads out to both lower and higher latitudes.

“What we’re seeing is the knot pull apart as it spreads across a region of the ribbon,” says Dr. David J. McComas, IBEX principal investigator and an assistant vice president at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “To this day the science team can’t agree on exactly what causes the knot or the ribbon, but by comparing different sky maps we find the surprising result that the region is changing over relatively short time periods. Now we have to figure out why.”

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  1. Linda /

    Why?.. IMO the CMEs and current activity in our own sun is likely having far reaching effects.

    Most of the CMEs that are ejected shoot out into our solar system, our galaxy.. Most are not even perceived from here on earth ..

    So .. I’m thinking that these CMEs could potentially poke holes in this ‘cloud’ (fluff) .. and in the “bubble” that protects ‘us’.. sorta like someone throwing darts from inside a balloon.. :) .. That would definitely cause changes, perceivable changes – In the ‘bubble’ as it is in the ‘sun’ .. and our Sun has definitely been more active lately ..

  2. katesisco /

    More on heliosphere compression:
    Thank you for your site.

    I have some comments and questions:

    Spiral light changes polarization so if historical reports of “rains of rats and eels” can be considered a fragment of truth, is it possible that dna can be altered during a polarization event taking place in the ionosphere?

    I find it so hard to believe black rats and brown rats are not the same. But even artificial insemination does not work.

    Going even further, the spiral light early this year attributed to a HAARP like facility in Scandinavia could possibly be an experiment with polarized light.

    Getting far afield here: if the ‘black hole’ at the center of the universe is a magnetic trap of unlimited power, then it can actually change the photon to an undetectable neutrino which is then stored in the Milky Way itself under conditions similar to a capacitor battery. When the capacitor is overloaded, from all historical indications here on Earth every 5,000 y, the energy enlivening gas clouds and planetary and solar cores vanishes in a non locality event.

    Where does it go? Since the AGN is not receiving sufficient energy to produce a galactic cluster, it must appear as a smaller energy like a single sun or system within the spiral equatorial region of the Milky Way. And if polarization is involved and it has to be since the photon is the original particle acted upon, then the non locality event produces the exact but reversed polarization.

    Just some ideas.

    Ms Kathleen Sisco

  3. katesisco /

    Actually, the electric universe describes this ‘ribbon’ as an effect of the Z pinch.
    What I was wondering is if this super nova explosions of 10 m y ago that is compressing Fluff; our ‘passage’ isn’t in relation to our time frame as humans. Indeed, we were not here until about the time the super novas exploded. 10 m is just yesterday. The Med was bone dry until 5 my ago. And if these super novas exploded in our neighborhood, why are we still in one piece? Fluff is 30 LIGHT YEARS wide and is being compressed by the nova exploded gas field. That just boggles the mind. So basically, all the solar system, all the Keiper Belt, all the Ort cloud, all this matter is saturated with and being affected by the gasses we now know are electromagnetic.
    W Thornhill says as well as the neutral electrons, there should be high energy particles. Well, what if they were the sun’ depleted particles impacting the heliopause, picking up a massive charge, and returning to the sun?

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