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The Boundary of the Solar System and Its Solar Winds Revealed by IBEX

First Posted: Oct 21, 2015 08:05 AM EDT

We may now know the boundaries of our solar system. Scientists have presented findings from six years of direct observations made by NASA's interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) mission of the interstellar wind that blows through our solar system.

IBEX has now consolidated and refined the physical conditions of the material that surrounds our solar system, called the interstellar medium. This, in particular, has opened a new and unique view into the interface just outside our solar system's boundary.

This is particularly important because this is the region where the giant bubble emanating from the sun, called the heliosphere, begins to protect our solar system from the hazards of interstellar space, particularly high-energy cosmic radiation.

"We need to understand our heliosphere because it is our first shield against high-energy galactic cosmic rays and thus plays a big role in making our solar system habitable," said Eberhard Mobius, lead author of the new study, in a news release.

IBEX actually discovered that the interstellar wind has a higher temperature than previously reported observations have stated. This temperature determines the pressure that the interstellar material exerts on the heliosphere. The size of the heliosphere, in turn, determines the effectiveness of the shield.

IBEX also detected a second wind component for the very first time. This component is an important telltale sign for the heliosphere's deformation by the surrounding magnetic field, which also influences how the heliosphere serves as a protective bubble. IBEX is uniquely equipped to sample this region just outside the heliospheric boundary because it can distinguish individual species of the interstellar wind.

The findings reveal a bit more about the boundary of our solar system. In particular, it tells researchers a bit more about the heliosphere and stellar winds.

The findings are published online in The Astrophysical Journal.

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