Mysterious energy ribbon at edge of solar system is ‘cosmic roadmap’

February 16, 2014 by  
Filed under Solar Energy Tips

A mysterious “ribbon” of energy and particles at the very edge of the solar system, first detected by NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) mission in 2009, seems to be a kind of “cosmic roadmap” for the interstellar magnetic field, according to a new study.

By comparing studies of this strange energy ribbon on the ground with observations in space, scientists are now getting a better understanding about what goes on at the solar system’s edge.

“What I always have been trying to do was to establish a clear connection between the very high-energy cosmic rays we’re seeing [from the ground] and what IBEX is seeing,” team leader Nathan Schwadron of the IBEX Science Operations Center at the University of New Hampshire Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space told Space.com.

Previously unknown, the direction of the galactic magnetic field may be a key to understanding how the giant envelope that surrounds our solar system–the heliosphere–is shaped by the interstellar magnetic field and how it helps shield Earth from dangerous cosmic rays.

Earlier sky maps from ground observatories showed clusters of cosmic rays–super-high-energy particles originating from supernovae–are correlated with the IBEX ribbon. The ribbon appears to be roughly perpendicular to the interstellar magnetic field while cosmic rays stream along its length.

The heliosphere describes the sun’s sphere of influence in the solar system. Solar winds made up of high-energy particles blow inside the heliosphere and push back against high-energy cosmic rays streaming from deep space. The transition region between these two zones is called the heliosheath.

Very little is known about the mysterious boundary between the heliosphere and interstellar space. Only NASA’s Voyager I space probe has ventured that far and, problematically, its measurements of the magnetic field at the edge of interstellar space show a very different direction of the magnetic field than indicated by IBEX.

“At that point, you say to yourself, what’s wrong? What could possibly be the issue?” Schwadron said. “It seems like we now have good independent confirmation the the IBEX ribbon is ordered by the interstellar magnetic field, and we know that Voyager takes fairly good measurements.”

Several research institutions participated on Schwadron’s team. Their research was published Feb. 13 in the journal Science.

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