Last year, when NASA’s IBEX (Interstellar Boundary Explorer) spacecraft discovered a giant ribbon at the edge of the solar system, researchers were mystified. They called it a “shocking result” and puzzled over its origin. Now the mystery may have been solved.
“We believe the ribbon is a reflection,” says Jacob Heerikhuisen, a NASA Heliophysics Guest Investigator from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. “It is where solar wind particles heading out into interstellar space are reflected back into the solar system by a galactic magnetic field.”
Heerikhuisen is the lead author of a paper reporting the results in the Jan. 10th edition of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
“This is an important finding,” says Arik Posner, IBEX program scientist at NASA Headquarters. “Interstellar space just beyond the edge of the solar system is mostly unexplored territory. Now we know, there could be a strong, well-organized magnetic field sitting right on our doorstep.”
The IBEX data fit in nicely with recent results from Voyager. Voyager 1 and 2 are near the edge of the solar system and they also have sensed strong magnetism nearby. Voyager measurements are relatively local to the spacecraft, however. IBEX is filling in the “big picture.” The ribbon it sees is vast and stretches almost all the way across the sky, suggesting that the magnetic field behind it must be equally vast.
Although maps of the ribbon (see below) seem to show a luminous body, the ribbon emits no light. Instead, it makes itself known via particles called “energetic neutral atoms” (ENAs)—mainly garden-variety hydrogen atoms. The ribbon emits these particles, which are picked up by IBEX in Earth orbit.
The reflection process posited by Heerikhuisen et al. is a bit complicated, involving multiple “charge exchange” reactions between protons and hydrogen atoms. The upshot, however, is simple. Particles from the solar wind that escape the solar system are met ~100 astronomical units (~15 billion kilometers) away by an interstellar magnetic field. Magnetic forces intercept the escaping particles and sling them right back where they came from.
“If this mechanism is correct—and not everyone agrees—then the shape of the ribbon is telling us a lot about the orientation of the magnetic field in our corner of the Milky Way galaxy,” notes Heerikhuisen.
And upon this field, the future may hinge.
The solar system is passing through a region of the Milky Way filled with cosmic rays and interstellar clouds. The magnetic field of our own sun, inflated by the solar wind into a bubble called the “heliosphere,” substantially protects us from these things.
However, the bubble itself is vulnerable to external fields. A strong magnetic field just outside the solar system could press against the heliosphere and interact with it in unknown ways. Will this strengthen our natural shielding-or weaken it? No one can say.
“IBEX will monitor the ribbon closely in the months and years ahead,” says Posner. “We could see the shape of the ribbon change-and that would show us how we are interacting with the galaxy beyond.”
It seems we can learn a lot by looking in the mirror. Stay tuned to Science@NASA for updates.