By: April Carson
The bubble of space that surrounds the Solar System is most likely never smooth. Ripple structures in the termination shock and heliopause, shifting regions of space that indicate one of the boundaries between the space within the Solar System, and interstellar space, have been discovered via data from a satellite orbiting Earth.
The results show that we can get a detailed and dynamic picture of the boundary of the Solar System.
The termination shock is the point where the solar wind, a stream of charged particles from the Sun, slows down as it encounters interstellar space. The heliopause is the point beyond the termination shock where the interstellar medium and solar wind are in equilibrium.
This knowledge will assist scientists in better understanding the heliosphere, a region of space that extends outward from the Sun and protects the planets in our Solar System from cosmic radiation.
The Sun emits a powerful stream of plasma known as the solar wind. This supersonic flow blows past the planets and extends all the way to the Kuiper Belt. Beyond that, it fades into nothingness as there is increasingly less matter for it to interact with.
This boundary is known as the heliopause, and it is thought to be where the solar wind meets the interstellar medium.
The sound wave's speed falls below the speed at which sound waves can travel through the diffuse interstallar medium at the termination shock, and the point where it is no longer powerful enough to resist a very low pressure from space is called the heliopause.
The Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) has been assisting scientists in mapping the heliopause since 2009, and both Voyager probes have now crossed that boundary. These intrepid vehicles are providing us with the first measurements of this shifting border while they cruise through interstellar space.
In 2014, the Voyager 1 spacecraft detected strange ripples in the solar system's edge, and now scientists think they know what's causing them. These ripples are created by interstellar winds interacting with the solar system, and they could help us understand more about our place in the universe.
Energized atoms that are neutral are what IBEX measures. These particles originate from the Sun's solar wind clashing with interstellar wind at the outskirts of our Solar System. Some of those atoms end up going further out into space while others get sent back in Earth's direction. By mapping the shape of the boundary with solar wind, we can use energized neutral particles to find out more about space.
In previous models of the heliosphere's structure, long-term measurements of solar wind pressure and energetic neutral atom emissions have been used, resulting in smoothing at both spatial and temporal levels. However, during roughly six months in 2014, the dynamic pressure of the solar wind grew by around 50 percent over a period of approximately six months.
A group of researchers led by Princeton astrophysicist Eric Zirnstein have used the shorter-scale event to get a more detailed image of the termination shock and heliopause - and discovered huge ripples, on the order of tens of astronomical units (one astronomical unit is about 93 million kilometers). These ripples may be caused by the solar system's motion through the interstellar medium, or by transient changes in the Sun's output.
The researchers not only modelled and simulated how the high-pressure wind would interact with solar phenomena, but also found that in 2015, the pressure front reached out to the termination shock. This sent a pressure wave through an area between the terminus known as The inner heliosheath.
When the solar wind reaches the heliopause, it is reflected back and collides with the plasma flow that is still incoming. This creates a storm of energetic atoms that fills the inner heliosheath by the time the reflected wave arrives at termination shock.
This is the first time that scientists have been able to directly observe how the solar wind interacts with the interstellar medium, and the results could help us to understand how our Solar System evolved.
The distance to the heliopause has changed quite substantially, according to the scientists' measurements. Voyager 1 passed through the heliopause in 2012 at a distance of 122 astronomical units. The team determined that the distance to the heliopause in the direction of Voyager 1 was around 131 astronomical units in 2016; at that time, Voyager 1 was 136 astronomical units from the sun, still in interstellar space, but with a ballooning heliosphere behind it.
The Voyager team's target to the heliopause in the direction of Voyager 2 in 2015 is somewhat more complicated: 103 astronomical units, with a margin for error of 8 astronomical units on either side. Voyager 2 was 109 astronomical units from the Sun at that time, which is still within the error range. It didn't pass through the heliopause until 2018, when it was 119 astronomical units away.
Both measurements show that the shape of the heliopause changes noticeably, although it's uncertain why this is happening. The research will continue as the two spacecraft travel further through interstellar space.
This is an exciting time for the Voyager mission, as we are learning new things about our place in the universe," said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "We are proud to have completed this historic journey of exploration as we continue to unlock the mysteries of the heliosphere."
The findings of the research have been published in Nature Astronomy.
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About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
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