Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Surprising Edge of Our Solar System

A couple of days ago I mentioned that NASA was having a teleconference today (June 9) to discuss conditions at the edge of the Solar System. (You can find it mentioned at the end of this post.) Well, the conference is over, and the press releases are out, along with some new images and a nifty video to explain it all.


I find the video gives the best explanation about what has been learned. It is a bit amazing to know we are still learning so much about our own Solar System, and we recognize that we still have much to learn.

Old and new views of the heliosheath. Red and blue spirals are the gracefully curving magnetic field lines of orthodox models. New data from Voyager add a magnetic froth (inset) to the mix. Credit: NASA

The basic gist of the findings is that a froth of magnetic bubbles make up the barrier between us and interstellar space. This is determined from data gathered by the Voyager probes and computer modelling. These bubbles change the old idea that there was a smooth barrier at the edge of the Solar System.

The froth seems to be generated by twisting in the Sun's magnetic field, causing the bubbles that can be a 100 million miles across. As Merav Opher, an astronomer at Boston University (and formerly George Mason University) puts it:
"The sun's magnetic field extends all the way to the edge of the solar system. Because the sun spins, its magnetic field becomes twisted and wrinkled, a bit like a ballerina's skirt. Far, far away from the sun, where the Voyagers are, the folds of the skirt bunch up."
Another amazing find from the astronomical community. This discovery will also help to build a better understanding about how galactic cosmic rays enter our solar system and help define how the star interacts with the rest of the galaxy. You can read the NASA feature story here.

(I am still working on an Astro-Lesson on Comets, I might just put that off until next week now.)


34 comments:

ed said...

maybe we'll find aliens next

Biff Tanner said...

I hope so^^

Zombie said...

Or maybe they will find us!

-E- said...

well, that's just a distortion in the electromagnetic field, not a physical barrier.

Ed said...

Now if we can just attract the attention of the Vulcans....

Jay said...

Okay, so does this wrinkled magnetic field affect the outer planets, or spacecrafts that venture out that far?

Astronomy Pirate said...

@Jay, the magnetic field would likely fluctuate variably over distances and times. When the Sun is at a solar minimum, there is less magnetic activity from the Sun, so we would expect the overall field to shrink. The field could also be pushed back by a particularly energetic cloud of particles in interstellar space. The wrinkling itself would be fairly un-obvious to any objects in the region, of which there are likely few. No planets are anywhere near this wrinkle, but Kuiper Belt Objects would be around there. As far as the effect on spacecraft passing outside of this, we don't know, the Voyager probes will tell us within the next few years.

Mike said...

The Voyager should be around Pluto by now, right?

Astronomy Pirate said...

The Voyager probes are way way way past Pluto, they both passed the orbit of Pluto in 1989. They didn't even swing by it. New Horizons is though in the next few years, for our first up close look at Pluto. Pluto's orbit is between about 4 and 7 light hours (the amount of time light takes to reach it from the Sun) and it varies because of Pluto's oval orbit. In comparison, Earth is 8 light minutes, Voyager 2 to is 13 hrs and 8 minutes of light travel, and Voyager 1 is a whopping 16 hrs and 8 minutes away.

Duhniel S. said...

i hope they find aliens!
i want to have an alien as a neighbor

Necroticism said...

Blee! in Futurama you can see the edge of the universe. Btw there's only 2 universes, ours and a second one, which is almost the same, but we all are dressed like cowboys.

Astronomy Pirate said...

Jeez with that alien thing. They won't find any anytime soon is my bet. And if we do, it will be more akin to the algae growing in a pond. Not anything you can communicate with.

Daniel said...

nice find!

Elliot MacLeod-Michael said...

i hope our solar system's ballerina isn't like the black swan because she was scary (and also overrated)

Bonjour Tristesse said...

That is beyond my comprehension but all progress is good.

Patti D. said...

That is amazing indeed!

You can visit my blog here.

JayPower said...

The solar system is such a beautifull place ;D

Dejch said...

that's good news

Jack said...

This science stuff goes right over my head, but its great to see debates going on in the comments!

The Angry Lurker said...

"causing the bubbles that can be a 100 million miles across", amazing.

**Hype.Planet** said...

Very interesting...

HiFi said...

Hmm this is kind of like cell membranes.

BigMike said...

30 years!! The Atari VCS was the height of home gaming when these were launched and theuy are still working... God Bless the USA

Banacek said...

Magnetic Bubbles? Sounds like the name of an indie band.

Melanie said...

hoping our evil alien overlords visit soon...and i learned something. good day!

Solsby Kid said...

Thats a really interesting video! Thanks for sharing :)

Moobeat said...

hrm, its giving me errors when trying to comment >.<

Dave said...

I never thought that there was a barrier at the edge of our solar system. Great info and a great vid.

phthalo. said...

An interesting point I can make about this is that I find it amazing how there's still things about the solar system that we don't know and we're already exploring exo-planets and such with telescopes.

Actually I suppose there's much about the earth we don't know. We can learn about things at such distances without even fully understanding what's in our own garden.

chillmastor said...

everying that has somenthing to do with aliens is just philosophy

Rorschach Redemption said...

Bubbles with cosmic rays in them? 100 miles across? To paraphrase the late Mr. Adams, make sure you bring a towel.

A Beer for the Shower said...

So much yet to uncover and explore, not unlike the ancient containers in the vast depths of my refrigerator.

bruno said...

Where are the Voyager probes going?

Astronomy Pirate said...

I actually think the cell membrane analogy is a good one, except you have to remember this is a permeable membrane to us. It is a magnetic field, much like that around the Earth, and mostly interacts with high energy particles.

@bruno, as far into interstellar space as they can get. They have another 10-15 years before they are out of contact reach with the Earth. I suspect they may make it to the Oort Cloud before we lose them. After that, they wander the stars, most likely until the end of time.

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