Friday, November 20, 2009

The View from the Center of Our Solar System

* NASA's Cassini spacecraft is helping to rewrite our understanding of the shape of our solar system as it moves through the local Milky Way galaxy.
* Previous models pictured our solar system as having a comet-like appearance. The new results suggest a picture more like a bubble.
* Cassini scientists created an image from this exotic region of space by detecting particles known as energetic neutral atoms.
* It complements data collected by NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer.

When NASA's Cassini spacecraft began orbiting Saturn five years ago, a dozen highly-tuned science instruments set to work surveying, sniffing, analyzing and scrutinizing the Saturnian system.

But Cassini recently revealed new data that appeared to overturn the decades-old belief that our solar system resembled a comet in shape as it moves through the interstellar medium (the matter between stars in our corner of the Milky Way galaxy).

Instead, the new results suggest our heliosphere more closely resembles a bubble - or a rat - being eaten by a boa constrictor: as the solar system passes through the "belly" of the snake, the ribs, which mimic the local interstellar magnetic field, expand and contract as the rat passes. An animation is available here

"At first I was incredulous," said Tom Krimigis, principal investigator of the Magnetospheric Imaging Instrument (MIMI) at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. "The first thing I thought was, 'What's wrong with our data?'"

Krimigis and his colleagues on the instrument team published the Cassini findings in the Nov. 13 issue of the journal Science, which featured complementary results from NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX). Together, the results create the first map of the heliosphere and its thick outer layer known as the heliosheath, where solar wind streaming out from the sun gets heated and slowed as it interacts with the interstellar medium.