Sunday, October 18, 2009

This Just In: Solar System Tied Up With Ribbon!


Y'know, if you were watching Trek, and Mr. Spock turned to the captain and said, "There's a ribbon of mysterious energy surrounding the solar system," you'd just groan and mutter something about the series' cheezy made-up science.
Except it turns out there really is a ribbon of mysterious energy surrounding the solar system.
Next, we'll discover how to make dilithium.
For years, researchers have known that the solar system is surrounded by a vast bubble of magnetism. Called the "heliosphere," it springs from the sun and extends far beyond the orbit of Pluto, providing a first line of defense against cosmic rays and interstellar clouds that try to enter our local space. Although the heliosphere is huge and literally fills the sky, it emits no light and no one has actually seen it.

Until now.

NASA's IBEX (Interstellar Boundary Explorer) spacecraft has made the first all-sky maps of the heliosphere and the results have taken researchers by surprise. The maps are bisected by a bright, winding ribbon of unknown origin:
"This is a shocking new result," says IBEX principal investigator Dave McComas of the Southwest Research Institute. "We had no idea this ribbon existed--or what has created it. Our previous ideas about the outer heliosphere are going to have to be revised."
. . . One important clue: The ribbon runs perpendicular to the direction of the galactic magnetic field just outside the heliosphere, as shown in the illustration at right.

"That cannot be a coincidence," says McComas. But what does it mean? No one knows. "We're missing some fundamental aspect of the interaction between the heliosphere and the rest of the galaxy. Theorists are working like crazy to figure this out."

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