Tag Archives: Heliosphere

NASA Space Place – The Shape Of The Solar System

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. NASA Space Place has been providing general audience articles for quite some time that are freely available for download and republishing. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting in June, 2017.

By Marcus Woo

2013february2_spaceplaceWhen Stamatios (Tom) Krimigis was selected for the Voyager mission in 1971, he became the team’s youngest principal investigator of an instrument, responsible for the Low Energy Charged Particles (LECP) instrument. It would measure the ions coursing around and between the planets, as well as those beyond. Little did he know, though, that more than 40 years later, both Voyager 1 and 2 still would be speeding through space, continuing to literally reshape our view of the solar system.

The solar system is enclosed in a vast bubble, carved out by the solar wind blowing against the gas of the interstellar medium. For more than half a century, scientists thought that as the sun moved through the galaxy, the interstellar medium would push back on the heliosphere, elongating the bubble and giving it a pointy, comet-like tail similar to the magnetospheres—bubbles formed by magnetic fields—surrounding Earth and most of the other planets

“We in the heliophysics community have lived with this picture for 55 years,” said Krimigis, of The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “And we did that because we didn’t have any data. It was all theory.”

But now, he and his colleagues have the data. New measurements from Voyager and the Cassini spacecraft suggest that the bubble isn’t pointy after all. It’s spherical.

Their analysis relies on measuring high-speed particles from the heliosphere boundary. There, the heated ions from the solar wind can strike neutral atoms coming from the interstellar medium and snatch away an electron. Those ions become neutral atoms, and ricochet back toward the sun and the planets, uninhibited by the interplanetary magnetic field.

Voyager is now at the edge of the heliosphere, where its LECP instrument can detect those solar-wind ions. The researchers found that the number of measured ions rise and fall with increased and decreased solar activity, matching the 11-year solar cycle, showing that the particles are indeed originating from the sun.

Meanwhile, Cassini, which launched 20 years after Voyager in 1997, has been measuring those neutral atoms bouncing back, using another instrument led by Krimigis, the Magnetosphere Imaging Instrument (MIMI). Between 2003 and 2014, the number of measured atoms soared and dropped in the same way as the ions, revealing that the latter begat the former. The neutral atoms must therefore come from the edge of the heliosphere.

If the heliosphere were comet-shaped, atoms from the tail would take longer to arrive at MIMI than those from the head. But the measurements from MIMI, which can detect incoming atoms from all directions, were the same everywhere. This suggests the distance to the heliosphere is the same every which way. The heliosphere, then, must be round, upending most scientists’ prior assumptions.

It’s a discovery more than four decades in the making. As Cassini ends its mission this year, the Voyager spacecraft will continue blazing through interstellar space, their remarkable longevity having been essential for revealing the heliosphere’s shape.

“Without them,” Krimigis says, “we wouldn’t be able to do any of this.”

To teach kids about the Voyager mission, visit the NASA Space Place: spaceplace.nasa.gov/voyager-to-planets

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Caption: New data from NASA’s Cassini and Voyager show that the heliosphere — the bubble of the sun’s magnetic influence that surrounds the solar system — may be much more compact and rounded than previously thought. The image on the left shows a compact model of the heliosphere, supported by this latest data, while the image on the right shows an alternate model with an extended tail. The main difference is the new model’s lack of a trailing, comet-like tail on one side of the heliosphere. This tail is shown in the old model in light blue. Image credits: Dialynas, et al. (left); NASA (right)

About NASA Space Place

With articles, activities, crafts, games, and lesson plans, NASA Space Place encourages everyone to get excited about science and technology. Visit spaceplace.nasa.gov (facebook|twitter) to explore space and Earth science!

NASA Space Place – The Invisible Shield Of Our Sun

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. NASA Space Place has been providing general audience articles for quite some time that are freely available for download and republishing. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting in July, 2014.

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

2013february2_spaceplaceWhether you look at the planets within our solar system, the stars within our galaxy or the galaxies spread throughout the universe, it’s striking how empty outer space truly is. Even though the largest concentrations of mass are separated by huge distances, interstellar space isn’t empty: it’s filled with dilute amounts of gas, dust, radiation and ionized plasma. Although we’ve long been able to detect these components remotely, it’s only since 2012 that a man-made spacecraft — Voyager 1 — successfully entered and gave our first direct measurements of the interstellar medium (ISM).

What we found was an amazing confirmation of the idea that our Sun creates a humongous “shield” around our solar system, the heliosphere, where the outward flux of the solar wind crashes against the ISM. Over 100 AU in radius, the heliosphere prevents the ionized plasma from the ISM from nearing the planets, asteroids and Kuiper belt objects contained within it. How? In addition to various wavelengths of light, the Sun is also a tremendous source of fast-moving, charged particles (mostly protons) that move between 300 and 800 km/s, or nearly 0.3% the speed of light. To achieve these speeds, these particles originate from the Sun’s superheated corona, with temperatures in excess of 1,000,000 Kelvin!

When Voyager 1 finally left the heliosphere, it found a 40-fold increase in the density of ionized plasma particles. In addition, traveling beyond the heliopause showed a tremendous rise in the flux of intermediate-to-high energy cosmic ray protons, proving that our Sun shields our solar system quite effectively. Finally, it showed that the outer edges of the heliosheath consist of two zones, where the solar wind slows and then stagnates, and disappears altogether when you pass beyond the heliopause.

Unprotected passage through interstellar space would be life-threatening, as young stars, nebulae, and other intense energy sources pass perilously close to our solar system on ten-to-hundred-million-year timescales. Yet those objects pose no major danger to terrestrial life, as our Sun’s invisible shield protects us from all but the rarer, highest energy cosmic particles. Even if we pass through a region like the Orion Nebula, our heliosphere keeps the vast majority of those dangerous ionized particles from impacting us, shielding even the solar system’s outer worlds quite effectively. NASA spacecraft like the Voyagers, IBEX and SOHO continue to teach us more about our great cosmic shield and the ISM’s irregularities. We’re not helpless as we hurtle through it; the heliosphere gives us all the protection we need!

Want to learn more about Voyager 1’s trip into interstellar space? Check this out: www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?release=2013-278.

Kids can test their knowledge about the Sun at NASA’s Space place: spaceplace.nasa.gov/solar-tricktionary/.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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Caption: Image credit: Hubble Heritage Team (AURA / STScI), C. R. O’Dell (Vanderbilt), and NASA, of the star LL Orionis and its heliosphere interacting with interstellar gas and plasma near the edge of the Orion Nebula (M42). Unlike our star, LL Orionis displays a bow shock, something our Sun will regain when the ISM next collides with us at a sufficiently large relative velocity.

About NASA Space Place

The goal of the NASA Space Place is “to inform, inspire, and involve children in the excitement of science, technology, and space exploration.” More information is available at their website: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/