October 15, 2009: 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.
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.”