Space

July 10, 2013

NASA satellite provides first view of solar system’s tail

Like a comet, the solar system has a tail. NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer has for the first time mapped out the structure of this tail, which is shaped like a four-leaf clover.

Scientists describe the tail, called the heliotail, based on the first three years of IBEX imagery in a paper published in the July 10 edition of the Astrophysical Journal.

While telescopes have spotted such tails around other stars, it has been difficult to see whether our star produced one. The particles found in the tail – and throughout the entire heliosphere, the region of space influenced by our sun – do not shine, so they cannot be seen with conventional instruments.

“By examining the neutral atoms, IBEX has made the first observations of the heliotail,” said David McComas, IBEX principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, and the paper’s lead author. “Many models have suggested the heliotail might look like this or like that, but we have had no observations. We always drew pictures where the tail of the solar system just trailed off the page, since we couldn’t even speculate about what it really looked like.”

IBEX measures the neutral particles created by collisions at the solar system’s boundaries. This technique, called energetic neutral atom imaging, relies on the fact that the paths of neutral particles are not affected by the solar magnetic field. Instead, the particles travel in a straight line from collision to IBEX. Consequently, observing where the neutral particles came from describes what is going on in these distant regions.

“Since first light in 2008, the IBEX mission team has amazed us with its discoveries at the interstellar boundary, including a previously unknown ribbon of energetic neutral particles stretching across it,” said Arik Posner, NASA’s IBEX program scientist in Washington. “The new IBEX image of the heliotail fills in a previously blank area on the map. We are first-hand witnesses of rapid progress in heliophysics science.”

By combining observations from the first three years of IBEX imagery, the team showed a tail with a combination of fast and slow moving particles. There are two lobes of slower particles on the sides and faster particles above and below. This four-leaf clover shape can be attributed to the fact that the sun has been sending out fast solar wind near its poles and slower wind near its equator for the last few years. This is a common pattern in the most recent phase of the sun’s 11-year activity cycle.

The clover shape does not align perfectly with the solar system, however. The entire shape is rotated slightly, indicating that as it moves further away from the sun and its magnetic influence, the charged particles begin to be nudged into a new orientation, aligning with the magnetic fields from the local galaxy.

Scientists do not know how long the tail is, but think that it eventually fades away and becomes indistinguishable from the rest of interstellar space. Scientists are testing their current computer simulations of the solar system against the new observations to improve our understanding of the comet-like tail streaming out behind us.

IBEX is a NASA Heliophysics Small Explorer mission. The Southwest Research Institute leads IBEX with a team of national and international partners. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the Explorers Program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

 




All of this week's top headlines to your email every Friday.


 
 

 
Images courtesy of NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft stays course to Pluto

Images courtesy of NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI These images show the difference between two sets of 48 combined 10-second exposures with New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera, taken at 8:40 UTC and 10:25 UTC...
 
 
Lockheed Martin photograph

Fourth Lockheed Martin-built MUOS secure comm satellite shipped

Lockheed Martin photograph On June 28, MUOS-4, the next satellite scheduled to join the U.S. Navy’s Mobile User Objective System secure communications network, shipped to Cape Canaveral from Lockheed Martin’s satellite manu...
 
 
Photograph courtesy of NASA/CXC/U. Wisconsin/S. Heinz

NASA’s Chandra captures x-ray echoes pinpointing distant neutron star

Photograph courtesy of NASA/CXC/U. Wisconsin/S. Heinz A light echo in X-rays detected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has provided a rare opportunity to precisely measure the distance to an object on the other side of the...
 

 

Veteran NASA spacecraft nears 60,000th lap around Mars

NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft will reach a major milestone June 23, when it completes its 60,000th orbit since arriving at the Red Planet in 2001. Named after the bestselling novel “2001: A Space Odyssey” by Arthur C. Clarke, Odyssey began orbiting Mars almost 14 years ago, on Oct. 23, 2001. On Dec. 15, 2010, it...
 
 
nasa-study

NASA selects six wild ideas in aviation for further study

NASA has selected six proposals to study transformative ideas that might expand what’s possible in aviation, shifting the boundary between fantastic and futuristic. During a day-long meeting in April, 17 teams pitched the...
 
 
NASA photograph

NASA signs agreement with Space Florida to operate historic landing facility

NASA photograph This aerial photo of the runway at the KSC Shuttle Landing Facility looks north. Longer and wider than most commercial runways, it is 15,000 feet long, with 1,000-foot paved overruns on each end, and 300 feet wi...
 




0 Comments


Be the first to comment!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>