IBEX Glimpses Alien Interstellar Material

Artist’s impression of IBEX exploring the edge of our solar system. Credit: NASA GSFC

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."

NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) has found that there’s more oxygen in our solar system than there is in the nearby interstellar material. That suggests that either the sun formed in a different part of the galaxy or that outside our solar system life-giving oxygen lies trapped in dust or ice grains unable to move freely in space. Credit: NASA/Goddard

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.

The galactic wind streams toward the sun from the direction of Scorpio and IBEX has found that it travels at 52,000 miles an hour. The speed of the galactic wind and its subsequent pressure on the outside of the solar system’s boundary affects the shape of the heliosphere as it travels through space. Credit: NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio

"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.

Artist representation of the Voyager spacecraft passing Saturn. Credit: NASA

"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.

Studying what exists beyond the heliosheath can help astrobiologists better understand the nature of our solar system and could help us determine the conditions that have allowed our system, and in particular the Earth, to become habitable for life as we know it.