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Unstrange Phenomena

01 February 2012

Space: Strange Different Neighborhood Just Outside Our Solar System

IBEX (Interstellar Boundary Explorer) satellite
Image via Wikipedia
From Denny:  Just when you think "the grass is greener on the other side," as the proverb goes, well, in our celestial neighborhood, it just might be true.  This week scientists are reporting Life is a lot different and downright strange just next door beyond our solar system.

What they find odd is the amount of oxygen present.  Oxygen is actually dancing around like an all night party at a hip bar inside that solar system.  In fact, there is more oxygen there than in the immediate interstellar space (that vast region between stars).

Scientists have yet to determine the reason for so much oxygen.  The speculation for now is that perhaps oxygen is hidden in dust or ice.

From David McComas, Southwest Research Institute of San Antonio, Texas:  "We discovered this big puzzle, that the matter just outside of our solar system doesn't look like the material inside."
McComas speculates, "Our solar system is different than the space right outside it, suggesting two possibilities.  Either the solar system evolved in a separate, more oxygen-rich part of the galaxy than where we currently reside, or a great deal of critical, life-giving oxygen lies trapped in interstellar dust grains or ices, unable to move freely throughout space."

This recent discovery comes from the 2008 launched NASA spacecraft, the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX).  (Oh, what a clever name.  I hope they didn't spend too much money on a marketing firm for that naming experience.)  The IBEX was sent out to study the chaotic boundary of where the sun's wind clashes with cold gases from interstellar space.

IBEX spacecraft measures 'alien' particles from outside solar system

So, how is IBEX accomplishing its mission?  It circles 200,000 miles above our Earth to keep an eagle eye on all particles streaming into our solar system.  The Heliosphere is a protective bubble that surrounds the sun and planets to prevent dangerous cosmic radiation from getting through to harm us.  However, neutral particles do pass freely through the Heliosphere so IBEX is mapping their distribution.

Scientists want to know the composition of the boundary region from our heliosphere and the nearest reaches of our galaxy, which is officially defined as the local interstellar medium.  Only supernovae explosions at the end of a star's life can spread the heavier elements of oxygen and neon throughout the galaxy.

Discovering the amounts of the elements in space can help researchers map how our galaxy evolved and changed over time.  IBEX has found 74 oxygen atoms for every 20 neon atoms in the interstellar wind.  In our solar system there are 111 oxygen atoms for every 20 neon atoms.  This means there is more oxygen in any part of the solar system than in the nearby interstellar space.

IBEX also measured the interstellar wind to be traveling at a slower speed than previously measured, at about 52,000 mph - and coming from a different direction.  In fact, there is a 20 percent difference in how much pressure the interstellar wind exerts upon our heliosphere than previously thought, affecting the size and shape.

From Eric Christian, IBEX mission scientist, at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland:  "Measuring the pressure on our heliosphere from the material in the galaxy and from the magnetic fields out there will help determine the size and shape of our solar system as it travels through the galaxy." 

From Barbara Giles, Director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA's Headquarters in Washington, D.C.:  "IBEX is a small Explorer mission and was built with a modest investment.  The science achievements though have been truly remarkable and are a testament to what can be accomplished when we give our nation's scientists the freedom to innovate."

Scientists are excited about the new information provided by IBEX as it gives new clues as to how and where our solar system was formed, the physical forces that shaped our solar system, as well as the history of the other stars in our Milky Way.

For more details check out this link.

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