Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Shield For Our Solar System: The Ribbon

The heliosphere shields the solar system from 90 percent of energetic cosmic rays — high-speed charged particles that would otherwise bombard the planets and harm life. Understanding more about the heliosphere and its ability to filter out galactic cosmic rays could be critical for assessing the safety of human space travel, Schwadron notes. The new findings may also help predict how the heliosphere varies in shape and size as it moves through the galaxy and encounters regions of space having different densities and magnetic field strengths.

The ribbon found by IBEX, recorded at energies between 200 and 6,000 electron volts, is brightest at about 1,000 electron volts and lies between about 100 and 125 astronomical units from the sun, notes David McComas of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. One astronomical unit is the distance between the Earth and the sun. The atoms recorded by IBEX, which orbits Earth, took a year or two, depending on their energies, to reach the craft from the outer edge of the heliosphere.

The IBEX ribbon runs perpendicular to the direction of the galaxy’s magnetic field at the interstellar boundary, an indication that the field has a much stronger than expected influence on the sun’s environs, report Schwadron and his colleagues. One possibility is that pressure from this external magnetic field has forced particles just inside the heliosphere to bunch together into a ribbon.

1 comment:

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