In 2009, using NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer, also known as IBEX, astronomers have observed an unusual ribbon-like structure dancing between our solar system and the rest of interstellar space.
The discovery of the IBEX tape, which is invisible to both telescopes and the human eye, was one of the first attempts by scientists to better understand our heliosphere – a bubble-like shield made up of solar winds.
“Most instruments that detect particles in space detect charged particles,” he says Daniel Reisenfeld, a senior scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and lead author of the study. But IBEX is unique.
It detects energy neutral atoms or ENA ions that originally come out of the Sun but collide with interstellar electrons, neutralizing them. These atoms can be found everywhere in space, and observing ENA flows over time can be a powerful imaging tool.
So what exactly was that mysterious tape? Scientists have since determined that what they have seen is a huge part of the ENAs that illuminate the night sky.
Using IBEX data collected on ENAs while plotting just one 11-year solar cycle, the time between shifts in the solar magnetic field, the researchers built a three-dimensional map of the entire heliosphere that Reisenfeld says protects the Earth and other planets from harmful radiation.
“Our Earth is bombarded with cosmic rays, galactic cosmic rays all the time,” he says. These rays can subtly affect planes flying near the poles, often on trips between Europe or Asia and the US.
Scientists say that in order to study the astrospheres of other planets, as heliospheres are called when they surround other stars, we must first understand our own.
“Many of the physical models currently being developed are based on the findings of the IBEX mission,” he says Nikolai Pogorelov, Professor of Space Sciences at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. “It’s not just experimental,” he says, adding that “it will be used for.” [a] real purpose. “